Attorneys use bootcamp playbook to press Trayvon Martin case

Published March 23, 2012

A dead black teenager in a small town. Charges of a cover-up. A national media spotlight. A public outcry. State and federal investigations follow.

This isn't just the story of Trayvon Martin's death on Feb. 26 in Sanford. It happened before, in 2006, when Martin Lee Anderson died after he was beaten at a Panhandle boot camp.

In both cases, the same man has been behind the scenes and in front of the cameras: Ben Crump, a partner in the emerging powerhouse black-owned Tallahassee law firm of Parks & Crump.

Crump seems to be everywhere. He'll either be burning out cell phone batteries exchanging info with reporters, shouting to a protest crowd through a megaphone or gently guiding his aggrieved clients through a nationally televised interview to make sure the same message gets through.

"It's about justice," says Crump, 42. "Too many times, whether it's Martin's case or Trayvon's, our society looks on the death of black boys like they're throwaways. And we're not going to let them get away with it."

Crump doesn't do it alone. His partner, Daryl Parks, is just as apt as Crump in the courtroom or in handling the news media.

Together, the two lawyers have handled Trayvon's case like Martin's, with one big difference: They learned their lesson six years ago in the boot-camp case.

In Trayvon's case, they alerted the news media more quickly. They phoned the Rev. Al Sharpton almost instantly, and organized marches with local civil-rights activists. They also started pressing for federal involvement and alleging a cover-up from the get-go.

The results: The Sanford police chief received a no-confidence vote and stepped down temporarily. The prosecutor stepped aside to make way for a special prosecutor. The Justice Department and the FBI have joined the investigation. Celebrities from Cher to Donald Trump have gotten behind Trayvon's case. And thousands have marched and protested across the nation.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in Friday on what he called a "tragedy."

"You gain some experience," said Parks, who has had a more behind-the-scenes role in the two cases as a matter of coincidence. "You brainstorm. You use what works and you don't stop."

Race is central to their practice — but that's because racism is so central to the black experience in Florida. Parks, 42, said he took one case — involving a Lakeland police officer's shooting of the black father of a child driven without a baby seat — because he was appalled by an officer's statement that "You've got to control them."

Said Parks: "Who the hell is 'them?' I had a black juror and I made sure she heard that."

Parks & Crump won the case. Now they're fighting in the Legislature to get the victim compensated.

The two graduated together from Florida State University law school in 1995, opened their firm the following year and began taking on profitable personal-injury and medical malpractice cases.

Sandy D'Alemberte, a past American Bar Association president and the former head and law school dean of FSU, knows the duo well and recalls that, even in college, the two had a knack for politics, organizing and supporting the black community.

"You have some high-profile people — including African-Americans — who are willing to rip off their clients. That's not Daryl and Ben," D'Alemberte said. "They're real philanthropists … they're wholesome. Ben could have been a preacher with the way he talks."

They hail from humble small towns. Parks, 43, grew up in Lake Hamilton, a town with no stoplights near Haines City in Polk County.

Crump came from Lumberton, N.C. In his teens, his family moved to Broward County.

With a thick Carolina accent and loose-fitting suits, Crump plays up his country roots.

"That was my grandma's lawyer, Matlock," Crump says of the popular 1980s television show. "She would say: 'You got to be like Matlock. You don't got to get city-slick with that fancy education. People believe country lawyers.' "

Parks & Crump also take on the far less-profitable business of civil-rights cases out of what they say is a duty to their community.

Though civil-rights cases pay less than the medical-malpractice cases in the short-term, the long-term payoff has been undeniable for the firm. Today, African-Americans who have a tough case frequently call Parks & Crump first. That reputation was born in 2006 after the lawyers took on the case of Martin Lee Anderson.

The 14-year-old collapsed at a Panama City boot camp on Jan. 5, 2006.

The guards surrounded him. They beat him, figured he was faking it. Martin died. The area medical examiner said the child died of sickle-cell trait, a rare disorder that rarely results in death.

Martin's parents took the case to two area lawyers. They declined to take the case. They then went to Parks & Crump.

Soon, word of a videotape of Martin's last moments surfaced.

State lawmakers pushed for the tape's release along with the Miami Herald and Crump. The boot camp, founded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief when he was Bay County's sheriff, refused. At the same time, The Herald uncovered correspondence between the FDLE chief, Guy Tunnell, and Bay Sheriff Frank McKeithen that suggested the state police probe wouldn't be impartial. Parks and Crump called for the feds to come in.

The tape was soon released. Tunnell later resigned over inappropriate comments he made. The guards and a nurse were criminally charged almost 12 months after Martin's death. They were tried by a special prosecution team led by future Attorney General Pam Bondi. The guards and a nurse were acquitted at trial, in part because there was not enough evidence to prove they maliciously intended to harm Martin.

But, thanks to the involvement of then-Attorney General Charlie Crist, the Legislature compensated Martin's family $4.8 million for his death. The Bay sheriff's office separately settled for $2.4 million.

The firm's cases are a parade of horribles: a 2-year-old who died after being left in a day care van; a former Boston Red Sox ball boy molested by a club manager; a black motorist shot dead by a state trooper; a group of poor people swindled by a land developer.

The work has been profitable. Crump was inducted three years ago into the Multi-Million Dollar Advocacy Forum for winning more than 20 verdicts and settlements of $1 million or more each.

"My biggest regret is my biggest victory: Martin's case," Crump said.

"His family got something, but I will go to my grave feeling the loss of trust in the system. We saw a little black boy die at the hands of adults who got away."

Crump says he wants to make sure it doesn't happen again with Trayvon's case.

Early on, Crump pushed for the release of 911 tapes in Trayvon's case, which were recently made public and ultimately cast some doubt on shooter George Zimmerman's claim that he was attacked by Trayvon.

Zimmerman has yet to be arrested or charged, prompting Crump, Parks and Sharpton to echo the same calls for arrests that they made in Martin's case.

"There is no law firm like Parks & Crump," Sharpton, now an MSNBC host, said. "No one has the credibility like Ben. He called me and we gave this national attention. If it was left locally, this case could have been stuffed in a drawer."

Some lawyers shy away from the cameras. Crump says he needs them.

"In court, you have the jury," Crump says. "Our job is to get the case to a jury. We need to fight first in the court of public opinion. The jury is the American people."