An attorney who helped bring the shooting of Trayvon Martin into national prominence two years ago is again taking his case to a national audience, this time on behalf of slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown’s family.
Florida attorney Benjamin Crump signified the beginning of his public representation of Brown’s parents last Monday with a news conference in a church packed with reporters and family members. It came less than 24 hours after he announced he would be involved with the case and about 48 hours after the unarmed black teenager was shot by a Ferguson police officer. The shooting set off days of looting and protests in the north St. Louis County suburb.
Crump followed up the next afternoon with a joint news conference in downtown St. Louis with the Rev. Al Sharpton. It echoed appearances he and Sharpton — a prominent civil-rights activist and talk-show host — made together in 2012 after the 17-year-old Martin was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.
Since then, he’s been in front of the camera for multiple national TV appearances, pleading for more transparency from police. As in 2012, he is focused on keeping the situation in front of the public: As he told National Public Radio during his time working on Martin’s case, “If they’re trying to sweep it under the rug, don’t let ’em.”
In his first Ferguson news conference — an event marked by applause and occasional sobbing from the audience — Crump stood with Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, and asked witnesses to the Aug. 9 shooting to come forward and give statements to U.S. Department of Justice investigators. Again, the move was a familiar one for Crump: His strategy for making Trayvon Martin’s story international news started with news conferences in which Martin’s parents spoke about their son.
“This family rejects what the police authorities said … about how this played out,” Crump told the crowd. He also introduced Anthony Gray of St. Louis firm Johnson Gray as local counsel for the family.
With Crump as a public face for the family, the legal work on the local level will fall to Gray. Because Crump is from out of state, he will serve more as a spokesman, Gray said.
“A part of the representation of a family in a case like this is making sure that the message gets out,” Gray said. “What he’s able to do is help in the galvanization process for that.”
Gray, meanwhile, said his role is to “advise and counsel the family in the same way that any other attorney on the case would.” He said he got involved with the case after his name surfaced as a potential representative for the family and he introduced himself to them.
Justin Hansford, a professor in critical race theory and civil rights at Saint Louis University School of Law, said having an advocate like Crump is important because in legal actions arising from a high-profile case like this, jurors will come in with prior knowledge.
“It’s unavoidable,” he said.
Crump’s role, he said, is to create a positive narrative — like the one Brown’s family and friends gave of a young man who hadn’t been in trouble and was ready to start college.
“In a world where juries were truly blind to the media and didn’t have any previous impressions to the case at all, … it would be a different situation,” he said. “In a case where there is already going to be previous knowledge by jurors, it’s important for celebrity advocates to access media to provide a different narrative.”
Hansford said he sees Crump’s role as a “net positive,” but he said that isn’t always the situation with out-of-town lawyers. If the out-of-state attorney is helping in the courtroom, it can slow down a case, he said.
“There is a huge difference between practicing law in a St. Louis courtroom and practicing law in Florida courtrooms,” he said.
Crump said Martin’s father reached out to Brown Sr. and McSpadden after the shooting.
Crump had pushed for criminal prosecution of Zimmerman, which ended with an acquittal last summer. But Crump won the late teen’s family more than $1 million in a settlement last year with Zimmerman’s homeowners association, according to news reports.
In addition to civil rights, Crump focuses on personal injury and wrongful death cases, according to his firm’s website. The site bears the motto, “We help David fight Goliath” and lists prominent cases Crump has brought, mostly in Florida. But he has been involved in other out-of-state cases as well.
Last year, he helped focus national attention on Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old found dead in a rolled-up wrestling mat in a Valdosta, Georgia, high school gym. He helped get the U.S. Attorney’s office to launch a federal investigation after the local sheriff had closed the case.
Crump also was involved for a while in the case of a teen who was paralyzed in a police shooting in Pittsburgh in October, but his name is not on the online court documents for a federal lawsuit brought over the shooting.