August 5, 2020

First Call

Florida attorney Ben Crump remains in the civil rights spotlight

Amy Martinez | 6/25/2020

Paying the bills

While Crump focuses on civil rights cases and his media production work, personal injury cases pay the bills. He is involved in a number of mass-tort and class-action cases, including a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson claiming the company marketed talcum powder to minority women despite studies linking it to ovarian cancer. He’s suing insurance companies on behalf of doctors who’ve been denied business-interruption claims for losses incurred during the coronavirus shutdown, and he represents Flint, Mich., residents affected by the city’s contaminated water.

Like most personal injury lawyers, Crump only gets paid when there’s a settlement or award. “We’re doing OK,” he says, declining to disclose his annual revenue. “We can do well by doing good, and I’m doing well.”

Crump estimates that over the years, he’s won more than $40 million in personal injury and wrongful death cases and at least $10 million in civil rights cases. He’s a passionate advocate for police body cameras and an outspoken critic of Stand Your Ground, which Florida and more than two dozen other states have enacted since 2005.

“I believe wholeheartedly that Stand Your Ground is a problem looking for a solution,” he says, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the self-defense standard that existed before Stand Your Ground, when people had a duty to retreat unless confronted in their homes with a lethal threat. “This notion that you don’t have the duty to retreat when you’re out in public, even when it’s safe for you to do so, is encouraging society to solve problems with violence,” he says. It also disproportionately hurts black people, he says, adding, “It’s like a license to kill a minority.”

In his book, he points to an Urban Institute study of FBI data showing that the use of a Stand Your Ground defense “by whites in the shooting of a Black person is found to be justifiable 17% of the time, while the same defense when used by Blacks in the shooting of a white person is successful 1% of the time. In Stand-Your-Ground states, white-on- Black homicides are 354% more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white homicides,” he wrote.

Two years ago, at a Clearwater convenience store, Michael Drejka, a white man, confronted a woman passenger in a van parked in a handicapped spot. The woman’s boyfriend, Markeis McGlockton, who had been inside the store, returned to the van and pushed Drejka away from his girlfriend. After falling to the ground, Drejka pulled a pistol and killed McGlockton, who was unarmed and hadn’t made any additional move toward Drejka. Local authorities initially declined to arrest Drejka, citing Stand Your Ground. Crump, brought in by McGlockton’s family to press for an arrest, called the shooting cold-blooded murder by a “wannabe cop.” Last August, Drejka was sentenced to 20 years for manslaughter.

Crump counts the convictions of Drejka and Nouman Raja, another shooter in a Florida Stand Your Ground case, as progress of sorts.

Early one morning in 2015, Raja, then a Palm Beach Gardens police officer, was working undercover on a burglary investigation. He drove an unmarked vehicle and wore plain clothes when he saw a stranded motorist, Corey Jones, near an I-95 exit ramp. After pulling off the road, Raja, who is of Pakistani descent, approached Jones, a black musician waiting alone for roadside assistance, and fatally shot him, claiming self-defense. Jones’ licensed pistol was found about 40 yards from his body, never fired, leading prosecutors to argue he had tried to run away from Raja, who fired six shots, three of which hit Jones. Prosecutors also presented evidence refuting Raja’s claims that he had identified himself as a police officer.

Last year, Raja was found guilty of both manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years — the first conviction of a police officer for an on-duty shooting in Florida in three decades. After the sentencing, Crump, who represents Jones’ family in a wrongful death suit against Raja and Palm Beach Gardens, called it a milestone for black Americans “because often we don’t see police be convicted and sentenced for killing our children.” The Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, which paid Raja’s legal fees during the trial, is supporting him in his appeal to the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach.

Ultimately, Crump says, he hopes to raise awareness of the inequities in the legal system — “of how black and brown people are infinitely more likely to be racially profiled, stopped and manhandled by police, to be charged with a crime, to be convicted or compelled to plead guilty, to serve longer prison sentences starting at a younger age, and to subsequently lose their civil rights and their prospects to find work and succeed.” His goal, he says, is to hold America to its promise of equality. “We can’t have two justice systems: One for white America and one for black America. We have to make sure all our citizens have the right to equal justice,” he says.

During jury selections, Crump typically quotes the preamble to the Declaration of Independence referring to all men being created equal, with “certain unalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He asks potential jurors if they believe in equality for all, sometimes repeatedly when he’s concerned about a potential juror being prejudiced.

“This is the crux of the matter,” he says. “If they don’t believe my client is due equal consideration, then we’ve lost from the beginning. They have to look at our sons and daughters just as they would look at their sons and daughters. We can’t move on as a country until people really believe that. There are times when we have people in the courtroom who do not believe everyone is created equal.”

 

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