August 5, 2020

First Call

Florida attorney Ben Crump remains in the civil rights spotlight

Amy Martinez | 6/25/2020

Working the media

Nunn says a big part of Crump’s success has been his ability to use the media to get public support behind him. “You always hear the comment, ‘I don’t want to try this case in the media.’ Well, if it’s a civil rights case, you have to. You can’t just have a good handle on the legal aspects of the case. You need a broader skill set that involves working the public and the media,” Nunn says. “His first win will be, ‘Am I able to encourage a prosecution?’ The second win will be, ‘Can I secure a recovery for my client?’ ”

Last fall, Crump won a $2.4-million settlement from the city of Sacramento for the family of Stephon Clark, a young black man who died after being shot seven times by police in his grandparents’ back yard. Police, responding to reports of cars being broken into, said they shot Clark because they thought he was pointing a gun at them; they later found no gun, only a cell phone. The two officers involved were not charged with any crime, but the killing and subsequent protests prompted California to change its use-of-force law. Morgan, whose firm worked with Crump on the lawsuit, says they got a larger-than-expected settlement because “the city and mayor did not want negative publicity about their police force. Ben Crump can draw a camera like no other lawyer.”

Crump’s high profile has led some to suggest he plays the media too much. In 2013, Orlando criminal defense attorney Mark O’Mara, who represented Zimmerman during his murder trial, said in a CNN interview his client had been victimized by a publicity campaign, led by Crump, "to smear him, to call him a racist when he wasn’t and to call him a murderer when he wasn’t.”

Two years later, Crump and O’Mara appeared on a race-relations panel together at a National Trial Lawyers conference in Miami Beach. O’Mara, while still critical of the media's portrayal of Zimmerman, says he and Crump are now on friendly terms. “You have to remember that both Ben and I are obligated to represent our clients zealously, to present the best case for them, and it’s up to the other side to counter it,” he says. “I like Ben and respect him, and I think Ben respects me.”

O’Mara, who also represents plaintiffs in civil rights cases involving alleged police brutality and misconduct, praises Crump for calling out implicit bias against young black men in the legal system. “We’ve got to figure out a way to be more sensitized to the fact that our system is biased,” O’Mara says. “Ben is one of the people dragging our dirty laundry out in front of us, shining a spotlight on it and saying, ‘Fix this.’ ”

These days, Crump splits his time between Los Angeles and Tallahassee, where he lives in a custom-built house in the historically black part of town near FAMU. “I wanted to try to build up the property values in my community,” he says. His mother lives close by in a house he bought for her, and his wife, Genae, works for the Leon County school district as director of juvenile justice education programs. He attends Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

Crump is a teetotaler. “No cocktails for Ben,” Morgan says. Crump says his abstinence is due to a childhood promise he made to his great-grandmother to never drink. He enjoys following sports, especially FSU and FAMU football. He frequently speaks to students at FSU about practicing law and is co-founder of MyDad360, a mentoring program for fathers. He’s president of the National Civil Rights Trial Lawyers Association and a board member for Omega Psi Phi, the country’s oldest black fraternity, and for the Innocence Project, a New Yorkbased non-profit that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongly convicted people.

“Ben has always been about trying to be helpful to people,” Parks says. “When you come up poor in a black neighborhood, you’re used to pulling together because you’re not used to operating from a pool of resources. You find yourself always on the short end of the stick, and that’s the side you’re fighting on.”

In May, Crump returned to the spotlight, representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man who was shot to death while jogging in southeast Georgia by two white men chasing him in a truck. The shooters said they thought Arbery was responsible for a string of burglaries in the neighborhood. More than two months later, after a video of the fatal confrontation was made public, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Arbery’s killers on charges of murder and aggravated assault.

Meanwhile, the national media also began covering another of Crump’s cases, the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician in Louisville, Ky. Using a “no knock” warrant, police entered Taylor’s apartment without warning and shot her as she stood in her underwear. She was unarmed. The warrant specified a suspect who didn’t live at Taylor’s home.

On a recent afternoon, Crump briefly interrupted a phone interview to take a call from U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, who was writing a letter to the Justice Department demanding a federal investigation of Taylor’s death.

Several days later, Crump emerged at the center of the George Floyd case in Minneapolis. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man whom police sought to arrest for suspected forgery, died on Memorial Day after a white officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. A video taken by a bystander showed Floyd crying out that he couldn’t breathe. The city moved quickly to fire Chauvin and three other officers who stood by but didn't immediately arrest them. As protests and civil unrest spread across the U.S., Chauvin initially was charged with third-degree murder. Nine days after Floyd's death, prosecutors raised Chauvin's charge to second-degree murder and arrested the other three officers. Crump, who represents the Floyd family, hailed the upgraded and additional charges as a bittersweet moment.

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