Trayvon Martin, Rachel Jeantel and separating lies from truth

Rachel Jeantel spent two days on the stand last week as the prosecution’s star witness in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman in the case of Trayvon Martin.

Many were left wondering whether she ultimately damaged the state's case. She was hostile, uncooperative and difficult to understand. But she was also the last person to speak to Martin before Zimmerman shot and killed him on a Sanford, Fla., sidewalk in February 2012.

I wrote that I thought it was a mistake to judge someone like Jeantel, a 19-year-old of Haitian descent who grew up speaking Creole and Spanish, by how she acted on the stand. It was, I thought, more important to hear her words. I said that I didn't think the lies she told about why she didn't attend Martin's funeral or her age meant she was a liar about other issues. I was disturbed with the intensity of the vitriol directed against her on the Internet and talk radio.

Some readers agreed with me; many more were incensed by what I wrote and by Jeantel's behavior on the stand, her untruths, and her claim that Martin’s description of Zimmerman as a “cracker” when she asked who was following him was not racial, even though it is widely accepted as a racially derogatory term.

Here’s a sample of reader responses to my post about Jeantel. I’ve condensed some for clarity's sake: 

“In our system, the credibility of a witness is critical. Her demeanor, tone and what she says are all relevant to a juror's decision on how much weight to give her testimony. A proven falsehood shows a willingness to lie for one's reasons. The defense attorney's job is to challenge her credibility. If he doesn't, it's malpractice. Every defendant is entitled to a vigorous defense. You seem to believe that jurors should ignore inconsistencies or demeanor in determining what to believe.

"The young woman wasn't a very persuasive witness. First, she saw nothing and drew conclusions from what she could hear. That is weak testimony, hardly enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The young woman has a natural bias because the deceased was her friend. She gave false reason for not attending the funeral and she misstated her age. It is pretty reasonable to believe she would color her testimony against the defendant…. I think she tried her best for her friend.” R.P.

“Your article is the perfect example of the application of a double standard. Why should she be questioned differently than a white witness? It is obvious that she has little or no interest in the legal system. If she is telling the truth the best thing she could do is to represent the facts as she understands them in a respectful manner. Right now she is destroying the state’s case with a shifty and inconsistent testimony. Turn your brain on.” TX

“I am no friend of Zimmerman nor do feel any sympathy for his predicament but... You come out on the side of Rachel Jeantel as if she can tell no lies…. As to the remark used by Martin about being followed by a ‘cracker,’ I know for a fact what that means and it is a racial slur.... I have known many blacks thanks to years in the Army and living ‘in the big city.’ Trust me, calling a white person a cracker is a slur. She lied about that as well as lied about the letter…. The woman is a liar. That doesn’t make Zimmerman innocent of wrongdoing but it does dramatically limit her credibility, whether you want to admit that limited credibility or not.

"You are not totally wrong about her probably being in shock and surely not wrong about her not wishing to be drawn into this mess and is and will be horrified for a long time by what happened and being used by the prosecution as one of their chief witnesses. Surely they could have found a better way to use what she knows but... they haven’t. In fact, her testimony may be some of the best testimony for Zimmerman the defense has.

"Don’t put Jeantel up as some sort of poor depressed used woman that everyone should feel sorry for.... she isn’t that.”B.L.

“After reading article after article and the responses ... some based on racist filth, YOU couldn't have said it more clearly. Instead of trying to debase this young woman for how she looks or sounds, try paying attention to what she's saying. This is going to be a tough case nevertheless. I only wish someone actually saw the incident all go down in its entirety."  — K.H.

“You can't tell your readers that only the words of a witness matter. Any expert in communications will tell you there is nothing more important for a juror to see than the non-verbal communications. Please further your investigation by talking with an educator in the communications field.” — R.W.

“Ms Jeantel has made several different statements surrounding what she did & didn't know, she lied about writing a letter, that she later said that she dictated. And I think that she is trying to get her 15 minutes of fame, in some extent by exaggerating what she knows. And yes people in power should not beat up on a 19 year girl. This case or any other should not be about race, but did [become so] when she said Mr. Martin called Mr. Zimmerman a ‘creepy-ass cracker.’ Is that not racial profiling of sorts? Now, if a white man called a black man a derogatory name, that white man would be drawn & quartered for use of bad language & character association. The case would probably have been over at that point.” — J.G.

“Real incisive, professional story, Robin. Except the jury has to evaluate the totality of any witnesses testimony including their demeanor, so your analysis, while rich on emotion, is way off the mark. She probably impeached her own testimony with the jury more than any defense lawyer could ever have done. While you might have been entertained by her, that's not what the jury is there for and they try real hard to keep air-heads who can't think logically off juries.” R.H.

“[Your] article as a whole was insipid; but at its conclusion, there was a remark that was downright troubling -- to wit:

‘The jurors 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.’

"The Zimmerman trial isn't a contest, as to whose fear was 'more believable,' or 'mattered more.' Should the jury decide that George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, it (the jury) would not necessarily be saying Trayvon Martin was guilty of anything. It's possible both Martin and Zimmerman were acting in self-defense, i.e., that each of them thought he was in danger of being seriously injured or killed by the other. To restate that: in saying Zimmerman acted in self-defense, the court wouldn't be taking a position on the actions of Martin. Unless Zimmerman initiated the altercation by an aggravated assault upon Martin -- or by provoking Martin and then not availing himself of an opportunity to retreat -- then he, Zimmerman, was entitled to defend himself against force that he reasonably thought would cause him serious injury or death. It wouldn't matter why Martin was using the force.” J.B.

“Not only do I see her as your sentiments expressed, I feel that society is giving her a rough time for being who she is. In a nation of capitalism, she's truly an example of the underclass, in which capitalism doesn't discriminate. At any rate, what her time on the witness stand demonstrated is the fact that their are two type worlds in this nation, the class who have and the class who don't…. And if this society can't see it for what it is, then my little girl’s chance of becoming President is a fade, and the dream will play out like disco did in the seventies. Instead of her being the butt of a joke, let us not forget the reason why she's there, and that racism continues to exist in the USA.” K.G.

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