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Thu April 5, 2012

How Lawyer Got Nation Talking About Trayvon Martin

The prosecutor investigating the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., has not yet decided if she will bring charges against the shooter, George Zimmerman.

It took several weeks for the Feb. 26 shooting to draw the nation's attention — after Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon Martin's family, launched a campaign to get the case before media and civil rights activists nationwide.

Two days after the shooting, the high-profile civil rights attorney started getting calls about the case. "My phone was buzzing," Crump says.

But Crump, whose firm's motto is "We Help David Fight Goliath," initially didn't think there would be any reason to take the case. When he heard Trayvon Martin was unarmed, he assumed the Sanford Police Department would make an arrest.

"A neighborhood watch volunteer with a 9 mm gun? And he kills your son, who's an unarmed teenager? They're going to arrest him," he recalls telling those who approached him about the case.

But there was no arrest. So Crump and Trayvon's parents began holding news conferences to tell their side of the story.

After the release of 911 recordings of the incident in March, Crump enlisted prominent civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, to the cause. The group organized rallies in Sanford and across the country.

"When attorney Crump called me I told him, 'I don't believe in drive-by activism,'" Sharpton told the crowd at a March rally in Sanford. "If [we're] in it, [we're] gonna be in it till we in and win."

A Tried-And-True Strategy

Crump's strategy for getting Trayvon Martin's case into the public eye is similar to his approach to his first high-profile legal battle.

In 2006, he represented the family of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old boy who was beaten by prison guards and died in a Florida juvenile detention boot camp. Seven guards and a nurse were charged with murder, but found not guilty.

"You kill a dog, you go to jail. You kill a little black boy — nothing happens," Crump said at the time.

Crump won a multimillion-dollar settlement for the teen's family, and the case prompted such outrage that Florida ultimately closed all of its juvenile boot camps.

Crump was born in Lumberton, N.C., where his mother worked in a shoe factory and as a hotel maid. He says his grandmother helped to raise and teach him, subscribing to a newspaper so they could read it together.

Crump graduated from Florida State University law school and opened a firm in 1996 with his partner, Daryl Parks, in Tallahassee, Fla. The two started taking — and winning — personal injury cases.

Identifying With The Public

The two's success is due in part to their strategy of enlisting public support.

LeRoy Pernell, dean of the Florida A&M University law school, says the Trayvon Martin case is about dispelling racial stereotypes — and pressuring state and federal authorities to act when the local police would not.

"A good attorney who wants to seek justice for their client needs to make the public understand that these are people just like them," Pernell says. "[To] make the public identify with their client. And that's what I think you see going on here."

Outside the Florida A&M law school, some students say the story may have gone unnoticed if not for the public pressure.

"You want to say that it would have," says student Aleisha Hodo. "But in all honesty, I don't know that it would have gotten that far if it had not been advertised nationwide. ... It's a sad story that it may not have been publicized how it should have been."

Crump continues to work with high-profile activists and has kept the Martin case in the news for weeks.

"If they're trying to sweep it under the rug," Crump says, "don't let 'em."

Crump says he wants to assure fairness in the criminal justice system. In this case, he says fairness means arresting and charging George Zimmerman — and letting both sides of the story come out in court.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As we just heard, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, has rekindled the debate nationwide over racial profiling. The prosecutor investigating Martin's death has yet to decide whether charges will be brought against the shooter, George Zimmerman. But the case might never have made it into the national attention were it not for Benjamin Crump. He is the lawyer for Trayvon Martin's family, and he led a public relations campaign to get the case before media and civil rights activists.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has this profile.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Two days after the shooting, Benjamin Crump started getting calls about the case.

BENJAMIN CRUMP: My phone was buzzing. I was over in Jacksonville, Florida.

LOHR: Crump is a high profile civil rights attorney in Florida. His firm's motto: We help David fight Goliath. When he heard Trayvon Martin was unarmed, he says he figured he would not have to take the case.

CRUMP: A neighborhood watch volunteer with a 9mm gun and he kills your son who is an unarmed teenager. They're going to arrest him.

LOHR: When there was no arrest, Crump and Trayvon's parents began holding news conferences to tell their side of the story. This one was in Sanford last month.

CRUMP: We are here with these individuals who bravely came forward after making several attempts to contact the Sanford Police Department, to tell them what they saw on the night that Trayvon Martin was killed.

LOHR: After the release of 911 calls, Crump enlisted civil rights activists including Reverend Al Sharpton who held rallies in Sanford and across the country.

REVEREND AL SHARPTON: When Attorney Crump called me, I told him I don't believe in drive by activism. If we in it, we're going to be in it, till we in and win.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LOHR: Crump's strategy of getting his case before the public is similar to how he handled his first high-profile legal battle. In 2006, he represented the family of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old boy who was beaten by prison guards and died in a juvenile detention boot camp in Florida. Seven guards and a nurse were charged with murder but found not guilty.

CRUMP: You kill a dog, you go to jail. You kill a little black boy, nothing happens.

LOHR: Crump did get a multimillion-dollar settlement for the teen's family. And the case outraged so many that Florida ended up closing all of its juvenile boot camps.

Crump was born in Lumberton, North Carolina where his mom worked at a shoe factory and as a hotel maid. He says his grandmother helped raise and teach him, subscribing to a newspaper and reading it with him.

The civil rights attorney graduated from Florida State University law school and opened a firm in Tallahassee in 1996 with partner Daryl Parks. The two started taking and winning personal injury cases. How they did that, in part, is by enlisting public support.

LEROY PERNELL: A good attorney who wants to seek justice for their client needs to make the public understand that these are people, just like them; make the public identify with their client. And that's what I think you see going on here.

LOHR: That's LeRoy Pernell, dean of the Florida A&M University law school. He says this case is about dispelling racial stereotypes and about pressuring state and federal authorities to act because the local police did not.

Outside the Florida A&M law school, some students including Aleisha Hodo say without the public pressure, the story may not have gotten any notice.

ALEISHA HODO: You want to say that it would have, but in all honesty, I don't know if it would have actually gotten that far had it not been advertised nationwide. So, it's a sad story that it may not have been publicized how it should have been.

LOHR: Crump continues to work with high profile-activists. He's kept the case in the news for weeks.

CRUMP: If they're trying to sweep it under the rug, it's always been my belief that don't let them sweep it under the rug.

LOHR: Crump says he wants to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system. In this case, he says fairness means arresting and charging George Zimmerman, and letting both sides of the story come out in court.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Sanford, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.