Trayvon Martin Witness: Rachel Jeantel, 19 yo High School Senior
by Delyte Delyte,posted Jun 28 2013 11:44AM
As much as anything else in the saga of race, fear, and firearms that is the death of Trayvon Martin and the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, a nineteen-year-old rising high-school senior sometimes described as Martin’s girlfriend, served as a kind of Rorschach test. When you look at the prosecution’s star witness, a young woman, dark-skinned and overweight, her eyes signaling exasperation, what do you see?
Social-media commentary on Jeantel began nearly as soon as she began to testify. Crass assessments of her weight, looks, and intelligence from some white observers competed with a cocktail of vicarious shame, embarrassment, and disdain from some black ones. If the trial has become a referendum on racial attitudes, Jeantel’s testimony served as a reminder that none of us have the moral high ground. Of the abundant ironies that this case has generated, perhaps the most telling are the commonalities that emerged while she was in the courtroom: it brings out the worst in all of us.
The two days that Jeantel spent on the stand—she began testifying Wednesday afternoon and finished Thursday afternoon—were often difficult to watch, and only partly because of the details she gave about the final moments of Martin’s life. Her appearance, diction, size, and intelligence were an unspoken but all-encompassing part of the proceedings. She wandered verbally sometimes, struggled to articulate what she was thinking. When the defense attorney Don West handed her a transcript of her own testimony and asked her to read part of it back, there was a lacerating silence. She pored over the page, but never actually recited the words. Thursday morning, she confessed to literacy difficulties, and to having needed assistance in writing a letter to Martin’s mother that’s been entered into evidence.
She was alternately soft-spoken and sharp, grief-stricken and defiant, convincing and contradictory. (It was not always clear whether West was cross-examining her or vice versa.) It was possible to look at Jeantel, who was on the phone with Martin when the conflict with Zimmerman began, as an earnest young person confused and traumatized by the near-witnessing of a friend’s death—or as a reluctant, irritable witness whose admitted untruths shatter any hope that her version of events could be believed. Or both.
Jeantel, who met Martin in second grade, admitted to lying about why she didn’t attend his wake. She’d told people she had to go to the hospital; now, she told the court, it was that she simply couldn’t bear to see his body. “You got to understand,” she said, “I’m the last person who spoke to him alive.” She’d skewed her retelling of events at other times as well, alternately because she seemed overwhelmed by the situation and to spare Martin’s family pain. She confessed that she’d given an inaccurate deposition to the family’s attorney because she didn’t want to talk about Martin; she gave the deposition over the phone, hiding in a closet.
When she returned to the stand Thursday morning, her demeanor was more subdued. Her wearied responses now included the word “sir”; her adversarial tone was replaced by resigned compliance. West took a different approach to his cross-examining, repeating her responses in a kind of verbal captioning that went on so long the judge ordered him to stop and simply question her. Later, the prosecution highlighted the fact she speaks Spanish and Haitian Creole in addition to English, a tacit admission that Jeantel’s credibility was not the only thing being questioned. Her intelligence was, too.
At one point, West devoted a line of questioning to the nature of the relationship between Jeantel and Martin—whether or not she was his “girlfriend,” if there was another young woman in Martin’s life, and why the two exchanged hundreds of text messages. This may have been an attempt to discredit her, but at a certain point it started to look too much like an older man just quizzing a teen girl about her sex life. Her time on the stand began to seem like a scene wisely cut out of the movie “Precious.”
The prosecution had opened this case with a nearly concussive series of cuss words meant to convey what George Zimmerman thought as he confronted Trayvon Martin: “fucking punks, fucking punks, fucking punks.” Thursday, we learned what—if Jeantel is to be believed—Martin thought of Zimmerman in the moments before he was fatally shot: “creepy-ass cracker.”
In Jeantel’s retelling of the night Martin was killed, he’d seemed fearful of the man following him around the subdivision and grew increasingly concerned that he was being followed, though he refused her suggestion that he run for safety. He momentarily thought he’d lost Zimmerman, she said, only to sigh, minutes later, “nigger is still following me”—a statement that would seem confusing were it not for the epithet’s modern tendency to cameo as a pronoun.
There are some things about Jeantel that are not hard to believe: that she remains profoundly affected by her friend’s violent death; that she, as much as anyone in the courtroom, was aware of the presumptions that accompany imperfect grammar, race, and obesity; that her initial reluctance and antagonism toward the entire undertaking were products of this awareness. Whether this jury will grade on a curve because a person’s grief roils just beneath the surface, because motive for lying might seem understandable, is—like so much about this case—unknown.