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Florida attorney Ben Crump remains in the civil rights spotlight

BEN CRUMP, 50

Civil rights attorney and founder of Tallahassee-based Ben Crump Law

Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from Florida State University, 1992 and 1995

Family: Married to Genae Crump. They have a 7-year-old daughter, Brooklyn.

Career Highlights: In 2012, Crump represented the family of Trayvon Martin, 17, who was killed in Sanford by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Crump helped the family reach a seven-figure settlement with Zimmerman’s homeowners association. In 2014, Crump represented the family of Michael Brown, 18, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Crump won Brown’s family a $1.5-million settlement with the city.

TV and Film Credits: In 2018, Crump hosted a TV One documentary series, “Evidence of Innocence,” about wrongly convicted people. He also has produced a documentary about the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and he played a cameo role in the 2017 biographical movie “Marshall,” about his personal hero Thurgood Marshall.

In January 2006, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was sent to a Panama City boot camp for joyriding in his grandmother’s car. Several hours after entering the facility, he collapsed during an exercise drill and died. Angered by a medical examiner’s finding that the death was due to a blood disorder, Anderson’s mother turned to Ben Crump for help.

Crump, an up-and-coming personal injury attorney in Tallahassee at the time, hadn’t been her first choice. “She had been turned down already by two lawyers,” Crump says. “One of them told her, ‘I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it’s going to end. Nothing will happen.’ It was a personal thing for me at that point.”

Crump discovered security-camera footage showing white guards at the detention center repeatedly kneeing, kicking and hitting the black teen. The video hit the media, and a second autopsy found the boy suffocated to death as a result of “the actions of the guards,” who had forced him to inhale ammonia. A year later, Crump helped Anderson’s family reach a $5-million settlement with the state, and the Legislature ordered the closure of all Department of Juvenile Justice boot camps.

In October 2007, a Panama City jury acquitted the former guards and a nurse of manslaughter. Crump stood on the courthouse steps afterward and announced, “You kill a dog; you go to jail. You kill a little black boy, and nothing happens.”

The case was the first in a string of high-profile cases that have established Crump as one of the most successful and well-known civil rights and personal injury attorneys in the U.S. He became a TV news fixture in 2012 with his leading role in the Trayvon Martin case and again in 2014, when he represented the family of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager whose killing by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. And then came May 2020, with news about the killings of unarmed black people in south Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota. If people didn’t know who Crump was by then, they almost certainly do now: Over the course of the month, Crump has appeared dozens of times on national TV to discuss the cases and demand justice.

“I would hope I’d never be in a situation where I’d need an attorney like that, but if I did, he’d probably be my first call,” says University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn.

Crump, 50, grew up in Lumberton, N.C., a small town in the state’s southeastern region. He and his grandmother, mother and younger brothers lived in government-subsidized housing south of the railroad tracks that divided the town. In 1978, school desegregation came to Lumberton, and Crump was bused to the wealthier northern section of town.

One day at lunch, a white female classmate, whose father owned the local nursing home, funeral parlor and several pharmacies, pulled out a $100 bill. As Crump and his black classmates waited in line for a free meal, the girl offered to buy them something from the a la carte menu. It would become a defining moment in Crump’s life.

“I remember thinking my mother would have to work almost the whole week to make $100,” he says. “I wondered how people on one side of town had it so good, and people on the other side had it so challenging.” Crump’s mother, a hotel maid and shoe factory worker, later told him about Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-American justice, who as an NAACP lawyer had successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the court found separate-but-equal educational systems for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

Crump says learning about Marshall made him want to become a lawyer. “From that day to this one, my objective has been to try to give people who are marginalized and disenfranchised a better shot at the American dream,” he says.

As Crump neared high school age, his mother saw limited opportunities for him in Lumberton and sent him to live with his stepfather, a math teacher in Broward County. He excelled at South Plantation High School and got a scholarship to Florida State University, where he majored in criminal justice. As president of FSU’s Black Student Union, he met Daryl Parks, then student body president at Florida A&M University.

Parks had grown up poor in Haines City, and the two became best friends while attending FSU’s law school together. “We were probably the hungriest guys there,” Parks says. “We had a desire to do good by people and be successful.”

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.”

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.

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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