Rachel Jeantel was on the phone with Trayvon Martin minutes before George Zimmerman shot and killed him, and she could make or break a murder case that was supposed to be microcosm for race and violence in this country. Rachel Jeantel was also on every cable news network in America for upwards of six hours today in her second straight day on the witness stand, and she really didn't want to be. But that didn't stop Zimmerman's defense attorney, Don West, from repeatedly saying Jeantel was "lying" about Martin's description of his client as a "crazy-ass cracker." And that certainly didn't stop a lot of people on the Internet from watching and laughing at a "dumb and stupid" 19-year-old black girl from the Florida "hood" as she, apparently, handed the case over to Zimmerman.
Kato Kaelin she most certainly is not, but the grilling of Rachel Jeantel today reveals the sad new reality of the Trayvon Martin case as it turns from national conversation into courthouse spectacle: With every televised eye roll, sigh, and deep breath Jeantel takes in the trial this week, we are continuing to bridge the divides so many people saw after that gun shot was heard inside a gated community two years ago. Can we not just let her be the last friend who spoke to Trayvon? Or must the Trayvon Martin case have its Charles Ramsey/Sugar Brown/Antoine Dodson sideshow character before it can have real justice?
It is a complex puzzle of race, class, and the law, perhaps best put together by Jeantel herself today on the stand at Seminole County Circuit Court in Sanford, Florida:
"A predominantly white jury is not going to like Rachel Jeantel. Let's just be real here," Global Grind's Rachel Samara wrote in a powerful essay ahead of today's questioning by the defense. "They won't understand her, especially not her defensive nature, and this will unfortunately work against her. Even though it shouldn't." They didn't, and it did, as the young woman of Haitian descent struggled to make eye contact and grew increasingly bothered by West's increasingly piercing questions about why she had changed her story to remove slang and muddled earlier answers about personal details — indeed, as a nation watching did little else but pile on.
West wasn't wrong about the facts, exactly. Prior to the trial, Jeantel did lie. She lied about going to Martin's memorial service, and she lied about her name, all because she says she didn't want to get dragged into a very public case. She also lied about how old she was: "Jeantel, who was 18 at the time of the shooting, admitted that she lied about her age, claiming to be a minor because she did not want to get involved," writes The Huffington Post's Danielle Cadet, who explains that Jeantel thought minors would get more privacy.
But after the prosecution got the basics out of their key witness on Wednesday, the defense's strategy in the all-day show trial today was clear through hours upon hours of questioning: West wants to connect Jeantel's confusion about herself with an apparent confusion about her story of that fateful night, which paints Zimmerman as the aggressor. West repeatedly asked Jeantel today why she failed to tell Martin's mother, during an interview with the family's lawyer in March, that Martin had described Zimmerman on the phone call as a "creepy-ass cracker" who was following him. West asked her if she had "cleaned up" the language of the call so as not to hurt his mother's feelings. "Yes, sir," Jeantel testified, barely making eye-contact with West, and she barely did all day. Her testimony was also littered with interruptions from the court reporter, who was making absolutely sure she understood Jeantel's mumbled words.
Rachel Jeantel did not fit in with this courtroom where she very much matters.
And the defense really likes that "creepy-ass cracker" line that Martin delivered to his friend. West and his team have accused Jeantel in front of the cameras not so much of toning things down for the mother of dead 16-year-old as that Martin's slang somehow had some deeper meaning. The implication, in this transforming trial, has become that Trayvon Martin was the racist for calling George Zimmerman a "cracker," rather than that Zimmerman was a "creepy-ass" neighborhood watchmen who shot and killed a black kid after he bought some Skittles and an iced tea.
And the defense team has further implied that if Jeantel were really the prosecution's star witness, she'd be able to explain this key line — and the whole call — a little better. But Rachel Jeantel isn't your average TV-ready star witness. Apparently, the defense has made her look, for all the world to see, like a dumb girl who can't keep her story straight:
Breaking: MSNBC signs Jeantel to co-host with Sharpton. Move to boost MSNBC hosts' mean IQ by 10 points.— Mike Rauseo (@Doobydoobydo) June 27, 2013
Seeing ppl make excuses for Jeantel's behavior is hilarious. She's not stupid she's just not educated? Wtf? #zimmermantrial— Stanford Parks (@sgparks4) June 27, 2013
This Rachel Jeantel girl is really blowing me!!! Like u can't really be this dumb and stupid..— November's own (@AMizzack) June 27, 2013
Conservative sites are having a field day slamming Jeantel and her testimony. And if the not exactly diverse jury — five of the women are white, and one is Latina — ends up with a similar perspective of the key witness as all the other onlookers have apparently obtained, well, Zimmerman's defense team must like its chances again, terrible knock-knock jokes and all. At GlobalGrind, Samara writes:
I can imagine George Zimmerman's defense is just hoping some of those 5 white jurors have some prejudices (as most people do), or hell, are even racist, because if they are, their tactic to make Rachel out to be less intelligent, rather than less credible than she actually is, might actually work.
Less intelligent and more confused. Less intelligent because of the "language barrier" and more confused because of the lawyers' failure to understand who Rachel is, where she comes from, what kind of life she lives.
Rachel Jeantel's attitude is exactly what I would expect from someone from the hood who has no media training and who is fully entrenched in a hostile environment. There's nothing wrong with it.
Which us brings us back to the big picture here, which was supposed to be the big picture surrounding the whole case: The only people, aside from the occasional legal expert on CNN today, who seem to be able to making the case that Jeantel's valuable testimony was just that... are people who understand what it's like to be a young black person in this country. The people who understand Rachel Jeantel are not writing conservative commentary blog posts on the Internet, really; they're people who understand that saying "creepy-ass cracker" and "retarded" is just a way of saying things, which Jeantel herself tried reiterated in court. But, no, the worst of the commentariat likes a stupid person, not a serious discussion, and if Jeantel couldn't be Kato, it looks like she's relegated to the same fate as Charles Ramsey, the man who saved three women's lives from slavery in a Cleveland basement but became an Internet "sensation" for talking on TV like an uneducated black man.
That said, everyone seemed to like that "retarded" line, as a kind of successful flipping-off of the aggressive West. And not everyone is blind to the fact that this young woman did something today, in front of a national audience, that she really really didn't want to do:
Rachel Jeantel ... Is brave! That's what I see!— BlkEmber (@BlkEmber) June 27, 2013
Rachel Jeantel is being brave against her damn will and all we can do is poke fun at her like we did Charles Ramsey. We worse than Fox News.— Jamall Calloway (@JACalloway1940) June 27, 2013
Rachel Jeantel is like so many yng people who live in the shadows of America. Never recognized or counted for, so they grow angry and sad.— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) June 27, 2013
At the end of the (very long) day in court and on television (there's other stuff happening out there, networks!), Jeantel remains the last person Martin spoke to before he was killed — aside, of course, from Zimmerman, who is facing second-degree murder charges in a trial that's expected to wrap up within the next two to three weeks. If you strip away all the commentary, and all the positioning by the defense to make this friend into a dumb backtracker, there is the truth: Trayvon Martin was running for his life, and he made a phone call. USA Today's Yamiche Alcindor reports:
That's pretty simple. What's more complex is the dilemma those six jurors and the general public watching — and watching and watching — are left with: We are being asked to trust this young black woman, a woman who's already double-crossed her stories and doesn't seem to care if we trust her or not. But at the very least, we should remember that it isn't Rachel Jeantel who's on trial for murder in front of all of us. It's that guy on the other side of the room.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.