Trayvon Martin: Controversy, racial strife familiar for attorney Benjamin Crump

As much as anyone, Benjamin Crump enabled Trayvon Martin's story to move to the forefront of the national consciousness. (Carline Jean, Sun Sentinel)

Before it became the subject of hours of national news coverage and the catalyst for an international movement, the Trayvon Martin shooting was just another sad crime story overshadowed by the NBA All-Star Game.

In the days after Trayvon and George Zimmerman had their fatal Feb. 26 encounter, the death that would captivate and divide the nation was a blip on Central Florida's radar.

Then Trayvon's father reached out to lawyers in South Florida. And they called Benjamin Crump.

"I said, 'Y'all don't need me for this case,' " Crump recalled. He assumed Zimmerman's arrest was just a delayed formality. "They're going to arrest him. They've got to arrest him."

They didn't.

Crump took the case and called a news conference. The rest is history.

Just as he did years earlier in another teen's boot-camp death, Crump has become a central voice in the cries for justice and a key figure in a major controversy. As much as anyone, Crump enabled Trayvon's story to move to the forefront of the national consciousness.

Those who have worked with Crump describe him as a detail-oriented, media-savvy attorney with a passion for civil-rights causes. A man who rose from humble beginnings to legal prominence, his experiences define him, colleagues say.

No 'justice' in prior case

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

The date was Oct. 12, 2007, and it wasn't Trayvon Martin's death Crump was talking about. Rather, he was decrying the acquittal of seven guards and a nurse in the death of Martin Lee Anderson.

The guards were videotaped in January 2006 hitting and kicking Anderson, a 14-year-old inmate at the Bay County Boot Camp youth-detention center, while the nurse watched. Martin died, and the video recording, which Crump sued to have released, sparked national outcry.

Almost five years after the acquittals, the topic is still an emotional one for Crump, who says he'll never forget seeing an all-white jury come back in less than two hours of deliberations.

"I will go to my grave feeling that justice didn't happen for Martin Lee Anderson's family," he said.

It was during the Anderson case that Crump first attracted the attention of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped the attorney bring it to the national stage. Sharpton said it was quickly apparent that Crump was devoted to the cause and had the fortitude to follow through.

"A lot of lawyers know what to do but don't have the courage to do it," Sharpton told the Orlando Sentinel last week. "He has the courage."

Anderson's family won more than $7 million in civil settlements. But Chuck Hobbs, then Florida general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says the day of the acquittals remains among the most disheartening of his career.

Despite the disappointment, Crump "was so calm and relaxed," Hobbs recalled, "and he was still firm in his belief that justice would be done."

The case gave Crump experience he would apply to future causes. Crump learned, Sharpton said, that in a civil-rights battle, "you cannot attack without being attacked."