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Amplifier for a community

The attorney for Martin Lee Anderson's family says he went to law school to represent those abused by authority.

By ALEX LEARY
Published March 14, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - It began quietly enough, with only a lawyer and a tearful mother sharing a couch in a modest Panama City home.

Ben Crump, who had driven from Tallahassee to meet with the parents of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, stared into the face of distrust and despair.

"They killed my baby," Crump recalled Gina Jones saying, "and they are going to get away with it."

Crump leaned forward and grasped her hands.

"I can't promise anything, but I'll fight to the very end for justice," he said. "It's a long journey but there will be a morning to this tragedy."

Daylight has yet to come, but in the three months since that meeting, Crump has managed to elevate Martin Anderson into an emblem of a juvenile justice system run afoul, affecting change even before the controversy over the teenager's death is settled.

The Bay County boot camp where the teenager was beaten in early January has closed and officials are proposing significant changes, if not elimination, to those that remain.

The 36-year-old lawyer has built a career on such pledges, employing a sense of hunger and conviction borne of a childhood in rural North Carolina, a willingness to take on government and the savvy to maintain media interest in the story for weeks.

"When I think about Martin Anderson, I see myself," Crump said.

He spoke by cell phone Monday afternoon from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office, where a second autopsy was being conducted to evaluate the initial ruling that the teenager died of a blood disorder, not the beating.

The assault was captured on a videotape that helped vault Crump's case onto the national news scene.

"It's one of the best things we've done, making the video a top priority," he said of pressure to release the tape.

That pressure often included placing the teenager's parents at news conferences and before legislative committees. Crump recognized a mother's tears and a father's anger were far more compelling than his own words.

"Everybody in America knows their pain," he said. "That's the only reason officials are dealing with this. Otherwise it'd be just another black child dead. They'd say he was uncooperative, end of story."

State juvenile justice officials declined to comment for this story.

Race has pervaded the case, providing both opportunity and distraction to Crump.

Prominent black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have raised the profile further by calling for justice.

But the attention has also put Crump in an awkward position.

Last week, state NAACP leaders questioned the fairness of Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to reinvestigate the teenager's death. The NAACP cited Ober's handling of the case against Jennifer Porter, the white teacher involved in a hit-and-run accident that left two black children dead. Crump, though, expressed confidence in Ober.

Crump has also had to balance the political world. His messages to state leaders have been pointed, yet he needs allies for an expected claims bill to secure more money than the state $200,000 liability cap allows.

"We want them to look into their hearts and ask, "What if this was my child?"' he said.

Crump was born in October 1969 in Lumberton, N.C., 125 miles southeast of Charlotte. His mother worked in the Converse shoe factory, supporting three sons by herself.

In the fifth grade, Crump was sent to an integrated school and soon discovered the disparity between rich and poor when a young white girl pulled out a $100 bill and bought the class lunch.

"I was blown away. My mother would have to work a week to get $100. I began to wonder why some people have it so good and others have nothing."

Four years later, Crump was sent to Fort Lauderdale to live with his father, a high school math teacher. Things were better, but the streets were a formidable attraction.

Two of Crump's teammates on the South Plantation High School basketball team later ended up in prison on drug charges. Another was shot to death.

But Crump did not stray, earning a scholarship to Florida State University. He graduated, then applied to law school, recalling on the application the experience of integrated schooling. He wanted to become a lawyer to carve out his own success, he said, but also to help the disadvantaged.

"He was concerned about little people, racism," said Tallahassee lawyer Tommy Warren, whom Crump clerked for during law school. Warren famously won huge settlements against Shoney's and Publix for workplace discrimination.

Turning down offers from established law firms, Crump went out on his own in 1996 with a friend from Florida A&M University, Daryl Parks. Today, the firm has 10 lawyers, all African-American. Clients are predominantly black.

"We went to law school to represent the people from our community who have been done wrong by the powers that be," said Crump, who used earnings from his first victory to buy his mother a home in Tallahassee.

Over the years, Crump has overseen some high profile cases, including the 2001 death of 2-year-old Zaniyah Hinson, who was left in a van at a day care center, and the check-cashing scandal involving former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson.

Crump took aim at the Department of Juvenile Justice last year after the reported rape of a mentally handicapped detainee at Leon County Juvenile Detention Center.

The boy was not only a victim of his attacker, Crump said, "he was a victim of the Department of Juvenile Justice who neglected him."

The controversy led to the firing of six detention center employees and discipline of five others.

With Martin Anderson, Crump is hoping for a larger ax to fall with the closing of the state's boot camps.

"This has become a crusade for me," Crump said. "We intend on fighting in the civil arena but this is one of those cases that will be historic. People will look back and say that was the boy killed on that video."

[Last modified March 14, 2006, 00:54:19]


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