Witness Rachel Jeantel testifies during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. (Jacob Langston / MCT / June 27, 2013)
She is the most colorful witness to take the stand in a murder case since pesky houseguest Kato Kaelin testified for the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Nineteen-year-old Rachel Jeantel would be interesting enough, just by virtue of the fact that she was on the phone with Trayvon Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, 2012, when he was killed by George Zimmerman, 29, the neighborhood watch volunteer (or vigilante, depending on your view).
But it is Jeantel’s demeanor and language on the witness stand that has riveted trial watchers, and raised all sorts of fascinating questions about the duty owed the justice system by someone who clearly wishes she had not been sucked into it.
Must the young woman of Haitian descent who grew up speaking Creole and Spanish sit up straight and speak in a clear, forthright voice? Must she pretend she is not being insulted by the defense attorney who is trying to impeach her credibility with the jury?
During two long days on the witness stand, during which she testified that Martin said he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker,” her teenage sullenness—eye rolling, deep sighs, mumbled responses-- was actually kind of fascinating to watch, particularly as we are so used to witnesses in criminal trials being on their best, people-pleasing behavior.
Not this young woman, who had no trouble showing her irritation with annoying questions.
That almost shocking irascibility was on display when defense attorney Don West, in his cross examination Thursday, speculated that Martin might have been lying when he told Jeantel that he was almost home moments before his deadly confrontation with Zimmerman.
“Of course, you don’t know if he was telling you the truth or not,” West said.
“Why he need to lie about that, sir?” she responded, in her low singsong voice.
“Maybe if he decided to assault George Zimmerman, he didn’t want you to know about it.”
“That’s real retarded, sir. That’s real retarded, sir,” she replied, repeating herself for emphasis. “You don’t know the person. You do not know him.”
On Wednesday, as the prosecutor questioned her, she mumbled in such a way that the jury and court recorder had trouble hearing her. Her testimony was stopped on numerous times.
I’ve always thought it a strange quirk of the courtroom that a witness who lies about one thing is presumed to potentially lie about everything else. She was rapped in the courtroom for telling Martin’s parents that she did not attend his memorial because she was hospitalized, when she wasn’t. “You think I really want to go see the body after I just talked to him?” she said. Who could blame a kid for that?
Yet, the level of cruelty and criticism directed at this young woman, mostly online but also on talk radio, has been as nasty as you might expect in a trial suffused with racial undertones.
Jeantel’s testimony will be critical for jurors as they wrestle with a truly horrible scenario. On some level, they will be forced to grapple with the question of whose fear was more believable and whose fear mattered more: Martin’s, who prosecutors say was in fear for his life, or Zimmerman’s, who the defense says was in fear for his.
Jeantel may have been a riveting, controversial witness, but the way she spoke and the way she acted should not be a factor in the verdict.
Jurors need only pay attention to what she said.