Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, a key witness in the George Zimmerman trial and the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin, speaks volumes about the Zimmerman defense and race and gender attitudes in America. Her testimony is a teaching moment on issues of grief, guilt, race, gender, class, education, obesity, beauty, and plain common sense, if only we will listen.
Rachel Jeantel’s testimony is seen as crucial to the prosecution. She is the young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin when he noticed that George Zimmerman was following him, whom he described as a “creepy ass cracker”. She stated that she and Trayvon had continued discussions about Zimmerman, who continued to follow and watch him. Jeantel thought he might have been a “rapist” since he kept looking at Trayvon. She testifies about how Trayvon Martin tried to get away but told Jeantel that “he’s behind me”. And she testified that Trayvon was close to his house when she lost contact with him via telephone.
And here’s the first teaching moment of her testimony. Defense attorney, Don West asked her if Trayvon might have been lying about his location. Her response was he didn’t need to lie about that and “that’s real retarded, sir”. And Ms. Jeantel, while not quite articulate in her statement, suggests that one would have to suspend one’s sense of reason and common sense to believe the defense’s theory. The defense wants the jury to believe that Trayvon Martin decided to attack a man that he was concerned about following him. That defies common sense or is “retarded” in Ms. Jeantel’s words. The jury will have to decide the case beyond a reasonable doubt. To believe the defense’s theory that a 17 year old teenage boy who was concerned about Zimmerman’s “creepy” continued pursuit of him, would have turned and then pursued Zimmerman defies reason. While Jeantel’s use of the word “retarded” to describe the defense’s scenario may not have been as articulate as some would like to hear, it fully expresses that the defense’s theory is a sick one.
Ms. Jeantel’s testimony has issues of credibility if the jury is to believe her. She lied about being in the hospital as the reason for not attending Trayvon Martin’s wake and funeral. On the witness stand, she testified that she did not want to see the body of her friend. She lied about her age—stating she was 16, when she was 18. She gave inconsistent accounts of the events in a letter to Trayvon’s parents and in a deposition to the family attorney, Ben Crump. She made up a name at one time. But, she never stryaed from her testimony that Zimmerman was following her friend, Trayvon. If one is to believe her, they do not have to suspend their sense of reality. They only need to apply her statements to reality. Some of her testimony speaks volumes about grief and grieving. Often, when students die, many school districts have grief counselors on hand to deal with the issue of death, dying, grief and often accompanying guilt. Ms. Jeantel was grieving the loss of a friend whom she knew since second grade. And in emotionally describing the events on the witness stand over a year late, she wept. Jeantel is still grieving.
Rachel Jeantel was eighteen years old at the time of the incident. The law says that eighteen is the legal age of majority. For those who have ever been eighteen, it’s easy to see how one fluctuates between adulthood, childhood and being a teenager. Eighteen is the age of majority but not the coming of age of adulthood in mentality—at all times. Jeantel was still in high school. The women on the jury, particularly at least two who have teenage children, should be able to reconcile her actions with her age. Jeantel was in an adult world in a teenage mentality.
Reconciling her demeanor, race, appearance and gender is far more difficult for some people to do. Going online, I was appalled at the comments on her size, appearance and speech which amounted to the unspoken race, class and gender issues. Jeantel’s testimony, even if fully articulate and without any inconsistencies, would still cause issues for many people who perceive and judge her as a dark skinned, overweight, obese, inarticulate, uneducated black woman which negatively codes as dumb, dark and black for some persons. The jurors will also need to face their bias in assessing her credibility.
Rachel Jeantel is not unintelligent as some online comments suggest. She speaks Spanish, Creole and English and was smart enough to know the defense theory is “retarded”. Rachel Jeantel speaks volumes to America about issues of grief, guilt, race, gender, class, education, obesity and beauty, if only we will listen.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial attorney and former prosecutor who frequently appears in the media discussing the intersection of race and gender in the law. Having prosecuted murders, rapes, burglaries, robberies and economic crimes with a high conviction rate, she is an expert in criminal law cases, high profile criminal cases and the complexities and nuances of the criminal justice system.