Benjamin Crump, center, the Florida attorney who helped push for a criminal prosecution in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, joins Kenneth Johnson, left, the father of Kendrick Johnson, the south Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school, and the Johnson family attorney C.B. King, right, on the steps of the Lowndes County Judicial Complex to call for the release of school surveillance videos in relation to Johnson's death on Oct. 10 in Valdosta, Ga. / Adam Floyd, AP
Benjamin Crump quickly lists his latest clients: There's the Pittsburgh teenager paralyzed by police bullets. The family of the Florida man who suffocated under a police cruiser. The California woman who lost consciousness while handcuffed in the back of a police car and died at a hospital soon after.
The common theme: a black person whose rights allegedly were violated by police. It's an area of law that has people from all over the country calling Crump, a Tallahassee attorney made famous by representing the parents of Trayvon Martin.
Headlines now herald Crump's cases, and the people he represents become subjects of national media attention. Some caution against high-profile attorneys like Crump who may grandstand and complicate cases. But others have started comparing Crump to past legal stars.
"He's this generation's Johnnie Cochran," said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, referring to the quotable attorney who defended O.J. Simpson.
"I can't think of anybody who has been as publicly on the record as really doing work in support of black and brown men and boys. That's not work most folks think of as enjoyable. In some regards, that's a real sacrifice."
For nearly two years the nation heard about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen who was shot to death by neighorhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed the teen attacked him; Trayvon's parents said he was profiled and murdered. Crump's successful campaign to have Zimmerman arrested and put on trial earned him a reputation as a dogged advocate, lawyers and his most recent clients said.
Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter and murder this summer, but Crump won the late teen's family more than $1 million in a settlement with Zimmerman's homeowners association.
Throughout the ordeal, Neal said, Crump and his team presented Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon's parents, as a calm, grieving family bent on seeing the justice system work. Crump's ability to keep that portrait intact and win a settlement is a testament to his skills, Neal said.
Crump, often dressed in a full suit and decorative tie no matter the weather, has a sort of familiar style in and out of court. His heavy voice carries a southern accent with a serious yet mostly friendly tone. He seems to befriend his clients while also watching over them like a protective parent. His indictments of racial and judicial inequalities come through in easy sentences. He often repeated at the height of interest in Trayvon's death, "All we want is simple justice."
However, Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, paints a different portrait of Crimp. O'Mara questioned Crump's ethics, pointing to claims he made against Zimmerman and the circumstances surrounding Trayvon's shooting.
"A lot of what he said was happening was all personal opinion or misinterpretation of the facts," O'Mara said. "That is very frustrating to me because I feel as lawyers we are bound by ethical constraints."
O'Mara added that he would be happy to see Crump zealously representing "the downtrodden" but hopes Crump is adhering to the ethics of the bar.
Crump has no regrets about how he represented Trayvon's family. "It has made me more stoic in knowing that there's no guarantee at justice," Crump said referring to Zimmerman's acquittal.
Records show Crump is a member of the Florida bar in good standing with no history of disciplinary action for the past decade.
Crump, 44, and his legal partner, Daryl Parks,started their firm in 1995 shortly after graduating from law school at Florida State University.
The Parks & Crump Law Firm handles mostly cases of personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice, but civil rights cases have flooded the office since Crump began holding strongly worded press conference calling for the arrest of Zimmerman.
Before Trayvon's death, the firm was little known outside Florida. Crump represented the family of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who died in 2006 in a Florida juvenile boot camp after being hit by a guard. Eight former boot camp workers were acquitted of manslaughter, but the state closed other boot camps and the legislature agreed to pay Martin's family $5 million.
Now, Crump said, the firm gets up to 50 calls and 30 letters a day from people asking him to represent them in discrimination cases that often deal with people of color dying or being injured in encounters with police. The work can be physically and emotionally draining, he admits.
"I get so many calls that say, 'My case is like Trayvon,'" Crump said. "What they want is Ben Crump to wave a wand and make the justice system work the way it should for every American. Unfortunately, a lot of times, it just doesn't happen. The tragedy is some of our children are going to be taken from us in unimaginable ways and nobody is going to care."
He turns down requests from people like the family of a mentally ill man who was shot by police after waving a knife. The jury most likely would side with officers, Crump said.
For every 50 calls, he said, at least one is worth taking. He weighs the financial costs of taking a case and the likelihood that a civil suit can be won. Like most plaintiff's lawyers, he gets paid only if his clients win.
Recently, Crump agreed to help the family of Kendrick Johnson, 17, who was found dead in a rolled-up gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga. The family wants video of the gym released and thinks the teen may have been murdered. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has ruled the death accidental, and police say the case is closed.
Kendrick's father, Kenneth Johnson, said he and his wife, Jacquelyn, had been trying to get additional information about Kendrick's death and attention for more than nine months after the teen was found dead Jan. 11. About a month ago, he called Crump's firm. Since then, his son's story has been told in several national news media.
"We just needed more power to help bring awareness of what was going on," said Johnson, 44, a truck driver. "I think now they (police and state authorities) know we're serious. Ben brings a lot to the table."
Krystal Brown, whose ex-husband Marlon Brown, 38, suffocated under a police cruiser after being chased by an officer, agrees.
Marlon Brown's family said video showed he was run over by the car, but a medical examiner ruled that Brown was not struck by the vehicle and died because he suffocated after the car came to rest on him. The officer driving the cruiser was fired and not charged.
Krystal Brown, who had two children with Marlon Brown, credits the family winning a $550,000 settlement to Crump's representation.
Crump is also helping Leon Ford, 17, of Pittsburgh, who was paralyzed when a police officer shot him four times after Ford sped off during a traffic stop. Crump argues that police kept him pulled over for too long after he provided all the documents they requested. The teen faces several charges, including aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.
The family of Alesia Thomas, a woman who died within hours of passing out in a Los Angeles police car, is also among his clients. Thomas died after being kicked by an officer who is now charged with assault.
The list includes not only police incidents but clients he said are wrongly imprisoned or whose deaths were not properly investigated. There are also nine women in Madison, Fla., who Crump said were wrongly arrested for voter fraud.
"Even with these high-profile cases, it's about terrible unjust scenarios and trying to level the playing field," Crump said. "With minorities, you have to fight for justice, where with others you seem to get justice just by breathing."
Crump has been married to Genae Angelique Crump for 13 years. The couple is raising his cousin's two teenage boys and their own 9-month-old daughter.
Crump was raised with two brothers by a single mother in housing projects in the rural city of Lumberton, N.C.
Parks had a similar background. "What are the chances of two project kids getting out and owning their own law firm? A million to one?" Crump asked. "We knew we had a huge obligation to give back, because the statistics were that we were never supposed to make it."
Gloria Allred, 72, one of the most famous discrimination lawyers in the country, has been taking on cases that focus largely on women's rights for 37 years.
She felt a responsibility to help women as a female lawyer. Her cases, which date to the 1970s, include representing a lesbian couple kicked out of a restaurant for sitting in an area reserved for heterosexual couples; the family of O.J. Simpson's murdered ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson; and most recently several University of Connecticut students who claim the school didn't take their reports of sexual assault seriously.
"I have a passion for justice," Allred said. "My role is like a private attorney general, to enforce the laws passed for protecting individuals. ... It's exciting to be on the forefront of these pioneering cases."
Now a powerhouse attorney who costs up to $750 per hour, Allred said she is pleased to see Crump gain national attention.
"I like that he's out there fighting the fight," she said. "We need a lot more lawyers in the civil rights field."
Allred said now Crump will have to take educated risks on cases in a way similar to the firm she started with her own law school friends, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg. The work can be daunting and lawyers should be ready to go the long haul, like when she fought the Catholic Church on behalf of a sexual-abuse victim for more than 23 years before reaching a settlement.
Her advice: "Be very selective in the cases you take."
That advice is also echoed by David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. He said increased attention on a case is largely a positive thing because it allows the justice system and its possible flaws to be scrutinized in a rare way.
But most prosecutors cringe when a lawyer like Allred represents a victim or a victim's family, LaBahn said.
"Now you have one more thing to worry about," he said, explaining that too much attention can cause defense attorneys to ask for a change of venue.
Civil settlements can also hurt people's credibility and be used by criminal defense attorneys who might question witnesses about suing a defendant for financial gain or about being coached by a high-profile lawyer.
Neal said the public also may grow desensitized to stories about people of color versus the police. Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, warns those who might tire of hearing about the type of cases Crump takes: "What happens when something happens to their child? No one is making any fuss about it."
Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard law and director of the school's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, has been friends with Crump for 20 years.
"The reality is that as much as we think we've solved the problem of racial inequality and judicial injustices, they are still with us in the 21st century," Ogletree said. "Crump realizes he is no longer a Tallahassee lawyer or a Florida lawyer but a national figure for justice."
Ogletree, like Neal, compared Crump to Cochran, with one difference.
"Johnnie Cochran was so polished to the extent that he was almost too slick," Neal said. "Ben Crump is down to earth, and that's important because we don't normally think of attorneys in that kind of way."
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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