August 5, 2020

First Call

Florida attorney Ben Crump remains in the civil rights spotlight

Amy Martinez | 6/25/2020

Early wins

After graduating, they opened Parks & Crump, a personal injury firm in Tallahassee, in 1996. One of their earliest victories was a $2.4-million settlement in the case of a 2-year-old girl who died after being left inside a day-care van in Daytona Beach. They also won a $3.5-million jury award for a Georgia woman injured when a local auto dealer hit her in a company car.

While the Anderson case established Crump’s reputation as more than a personal injury attorney, the Trayvon Martin case gave him celebrity. “Trayvon was Ben’s O.J. Simpson. It thrust him to national prominence,” says John Morgan, founder of Orlando-based personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan, referring to the murder trial that catapulted the late criminal defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to fame.

In February 2012, Martin, 17, was walking through a gated community in Sanford with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea when he was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood crime watch volunteer. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin in self-defense, and police let him go, citing the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows for the use of deadly force if someone feels his life is endangered. Crump led a campaign to have Zimmerman arrested. Zimmerman later was acquitted on second-degree murder charges, but Crump helped Martin’s family settle with Zimmerman’s homeowners association for more than $1 million. (Zimmerman is now suing Crump and Martin’s family for defamation.)

“He’s so much more to us than an attorney,” says Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother. “He gives the very best legal advice he can, but he also lets the family weigh in. I felt I had someone I could really trust.” Fulton recalls praying with Crump before every deposition and hearing. “He’s a good ol’ country boy,” she says. “He’s a family-oriented man, and he’s compassionate.”

In 2017, Crump split amicably with Parks and partnered with Morgan & Morgan to open Ben Crump Law, a civil rights and personal injury firm based in Tallahassee. Crump and Morgan had met at a National Bar Association conference in Las Vegas years earlier and became friends. “Just being lawyers in Florida, we kept bumping into each other,” Morgan says.

The new partnership, which does not involve any ownership stake, gave Crump access to a large national network of lawyers and enabled him to expand, he says. He now has offices in California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas and Washington, D.C.

He and Parks “remain great friends,” he says. “Daryl started doing a lot of things in business, and I started doing a lot in television. We just made a decision that it was a good time to pursue other goals.” Says Parks: “I’m still practicing law, but I’m also pursuing interests in the hospitality space, and I wanted to be able to do that.”

Two years ago, Crump launched a TV production company, Brooklyn Media (named after his 7-year-old daughter, Brooklyn), to create documentaries focused on race and racism. “We have to try to put content on TV that shows there are a lot of good people of color in the world,” he says.

Current projects include the story of Nakia Jones, who was fired from her job as a policewoman in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, after posting a Facebook Live video criticizing the fatal shooting of a black man selling CDs outside a Louisiana convenience store. The city said it fired Jones for misuse of sick time hours and ultimately prevailed in a wrongful termination suit filed by Crump on her behalf. Crump also has written a new book, “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People,” a partly autobiographical look at racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“He’s such a kind, generous man,” says Vancouver-based producer Brenda Gilbert, who’s working with Crump on the documentaries. “There are constant requests to talk to families or represent them in some way, and he doesn’t hesitate to help.”

Nunn, an expert in legal issues involving race, says Crump emerged at a time when very few lawyers were interested in taking on civil rights cases. “Courts had made recoveries harder, and you had to worry about whether or not there’d be a sanction brought against you for filing what was deemed to be a worthless case,” Nunn says. “There’s not a lot of money there.”

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