A few weeks ago, tangled at the center of a trial she seemed to want to escape, Rachel Jeantel rolled her eyes, wandered over words and struggled to be heard. Facing bruising and occasionally condescending cross-examination, she was alternately shaken and defiant, halting and combative. The world mocked her for her testimony.
On Monday night, speaking to Piers Morgan on CNN, Jeantel seemed ready to tell her story. Moments earlier on the network, an anonymous juror and George Zimmerman’s defense lawyers assured the television audience that race didn’t taint the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“Race was put on top of this case by certain people who wanted it to be a racial event,” attorney Mark O’Mara said.
Jeantel, 19, whose speech and intelligence were crassly picked over after her testimony, dismissed that notion Monday. She said her friend, Martin, was walking through the rain so he could catch an All-Star game on TV, traveling with a purpose at a time of night when people are often out with their dogs, when he noticed someone was following him.
“It was racial,” Jeantel said. “Let’s be honest. Racial. If Trayvon was white and he had a hoodie on, would that happen?”
Jeantel’s interview revealed a funny, fearless teenager, at ease with her imperfect grammar but tired of being ignored. She said she didn’t mumble because she was dumb, as an Instagram post from defense attorney Don West’s daughter intimated. An underbite has interfered with her speech since birth, she said.
When Morgan asked whether she’d been bullied because of her underbite, Jeantel laughed at herself and replied with a bit of sass. “Look at me,” she said. “No.”
Jeantel also pushed back on commentators who used her and Martin’s slang to paint them as marginal and maybe prejudicial. She explained “creepy-ass cracker,” the term Martin used to describe Zimmerman in his conversation with Jeantel moments before his death, wasn’t meant as a slur.
It’s actually spelled “cracka,” she said, and it refers to someone who’s acting like a police officer. It meant Zimmerman was creeping Martin out.
But when given a chance to complain about West, the attorney who badgered her on the stand, Jeantel smiled and shook her head. She said her Christian upbringing prevented her from speaking.
Richard Sharpstein, a prominent Florida defense lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview that Jeantel’s testimony was “terrible” for the prosecution’s case. “She exploded on the stand.”
But Jeantel said she wasn’t fazed by the criticism. She remembered Martin as a “calm, chill, loving person” whose mild drug use never compelled him to lash out. “Weed don’t make him go crazy,” she said. “It just makes him go hungry.”
She recounted their day-long phone chats, and said Martin’s much-noticed boasts on social media obscured the person she knew. “Loved his family, definitely his mother. And a good friend.”