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Zimmerman Lawsuit Against Trayvon Martin's Family Alleges Defamation


George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, is back in the news. Zimmerman was acquitted of homicide in connection with the killing, but he is now suing Martin's family, the family's attorney and a law enforcement agency for more than $100 million. The suit claims that Zimmerman was the victim of a conspiracy and malicious prosecution and that he has been defamed.

Now, while the merits of the suit and the eye-catching demands have been widely reported, one detail has not been - Zimmerman's lawyer. He's being represented by Larry Klayman, who is known for prolific filing of lawsuits in support of long-debunked conspiracy theories. For example, he spent years denouncing President Obama as a closet Muslim who was not born in the United States.

We wanted to learn more about Larry Klayman and his work, so we've called on Heidi Beirich. She leads the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which publishes its Hate Watch blog. And she is with us now from her office in Alabama. Heidi, thanks so much for joining us.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So the Southern Poverty Law Center, as we said, tracks hate and extremist groups in the United States. And you have extensive information on your website about Larry Klayman. Can you just begin by telling us why you started following his work?

BEIRICH: Yeah. Well, it really started in the early 2000s, as he was beginning to attack the candidate Obama and started looking into Obama's - as part of the birther conspiracy, this idea that Obama wasn't born in the United States. But once we started looking at him, we realized that his conspiracy mongering went further back into the 1990s. And he's basically kept it up until the present day. Just in the very recent past, he held a grand jury, convened on his own, to indict Robert Mueller related to the Mueller investigation into Donald Trump. So these activities continue.

MARTIN: So he often identified as a gadfly, which I think implies that he's, you know, kind of harmless or perhaps a bit eccentric. But how do you see it?

BEIRICH: Well, I don't think that he's harmless. He's a gadfly in the sense that he seems to attach himself to every kind of controversy involving anti-government extremists. For example, he tried to represent Cliven Bundy, who is a rancher in Nevada who brought a bunch of militia types and anti-government extremists to his ranch in an attempt to repel a federal effort to reclaim cattle from him. He hadn't paid his cattle fees in forever. And whenever there's a high-profile situation like that it, seems like Klayman shows up to represent somebody who is also involved in conspiracy mongering.

And, you know, the gadfly issue also relates to the Zimmerman case here because it's making headlines. And here we find Klayman again accusing there of having been some kind of, you know, controversy in the courts. And he's making a big stink about this. And he's basing it on a video that was put out by a guy who works at Infowars - right? - one of the biggest conspiracy sites in the world.

MARTIN: The family through, their attorney Ben Crump, who's also been named in the suit, has basically called this cruel, noting that George Zimmerman has been acquitted and is a free man, but they have to live with the loss of their son. And they basically say, this is cruel. How do you think Americans should view this suit and the coverage that it is likely to bring about?

BEIRICH: I think the lawsuit is shameless, and it is cruel. And it's putting this family back having to relive the loss of their son. And it's outrageous. And it's probably being done to drum up funds for Klayman's own organization and to propel himself into the press. And it's just an extremely cynical way to draw attention to Klayman. But, you know, he's not above that. This has been his track record now for 30 years.

MARTIN: That's Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heiri Beirich, thanks so much for talking to us.

BEIRICH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.