Civil Suits Are Gaining Traction in High-Profile Death Cases

From Trayvon Martin to Jonathan Ferrell, lawyers are turning to civil action in cases where young African-Americans have been killed.

Posted: 01/15/2014 05:06 PM EST

When O.J. Simpson was acquitted in October 1995 of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a waiter, Ron Goldman, it was not the end of his legal troubles in that case.

Within a couple years, both the Brown and Goldman families sued Simpson for damages in a civil trial where the judgment came to a total of $40 million. In 1997, a jury unanimously found there was sufficient evidence to hold Simpson liable for damages in the wrongful death of Goldman and battery of Brown. And in 2008, a Los Angeles court upheld a renewal of the civil judgment against Simpson.

It is a legal approach that is gaining more and more consideration in recent years, particularly in cases where African-Americans have been killed, as an alternative to criminal judgments.  

Most recently, the family of Jonathan Ferrell, the former Florida A&M football player who was killed while walking unarmed toward police officers, has filed a wrongful death civil suit against the North Carolina police officer who shot him. The city of Charlotte, its police department and the county are also being sued by the family, court documents reveal.

In this case, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office said that the case will go to a grand jury on Jan. 21.

While the nation was absorbed with the verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, it wasn’t long before another legal avenue was explored by the slain 17-year-old’s family.

“Civil suits are not an alternative strategy but a conjunctive one,” said Royce Russell, an attorney who represents the family of Ramarley Graham, a New York City teenager who was shot and killed by police.

“Families are doing it more because there is a greater education now about it being a viable form of relief,” Russell said in an interview with BET.com. “You also see it more now because there are more high-profile cases like this around the country. And people are more inclined to turn to the legal system to seek some kind of redress or action to get some degree of satisfaction.”

Russell, too, filed a civil suit on behalf of the family of Graham, who was shot and killed in his bathroom by a New York City police officer after the teenager was pursued by a narcotics unit.

Martin’s parents settled a wrongful death suit with the homeowners association for the gated community in Sanford, Florida, where the teenager was shot and killed by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. The undisclosed sum is believed to be more than $1 million, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Although Trayvon’s parents have agreed to drop their wrongful death suit against the gated community, their family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, maintains that he plans to pursue a civil lawsuit against Zimmerman.

Crump has employed the strategy of filing civil suits in high-profile cases involving the deaths of young African-Americans a number of times. He said that it is often an effective way of families feeling some degree of justice, although often an incomplete one.

“Civil suits are important tools to use because often the system doesn’t hold the police or others responsible for the death of the person involved,” Crump said in an interview with BET.com.

“We have found that people don’t often value Black life,” Crump said. “So every time a Black man is shot, if we make the perpetrators pay $1 million as a result of a civil suit, maybe there would be fewer Black men getting shot.”

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(Photo: Yellow Dog Productions/Getty Images)

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