Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin's Friend, May Have Helped And Hurt George Zimmerman's Defense

06/30/2013 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2013
AP

As witness after witness took to the stand this week in the George Zimmerman trial, each individual put a long-awaited face and name to the tragic story that has enthralled the nation for over a year. But one has stood out -- Rachel Jeantel , the young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he was shot and killed by defendant George Zimmerman.

The 19-year-old could not have anticipated that day how she would come to represent the many tensions within the case, the trial and the larger intersections of race, class and law enforcement in the U.S. As Trayvon Martin's friend, the prosecution looked to her to tell his story, and as the opposing side's witness, the defense hoped she would exhibit a lack of credibility that would work in Zimmerman's favor.

Experts say that Jeantel's testimony was a labyrinth of cultural nuances that may be difficult for the primarily white jury to understand. But others feel that sympathy for the young woman's age and raw demeanor -- and also the defense's underestimation of the jury's empathy for her -- may be key to the prosecution's success.

'WHY WOULDN'T SHE WANT TO BE THERE?'

Many viewers criticized Jeantel for her at times dismissive, aggressive and seemingly hostile attitude. Elura Nanos, a former prosecutor and owner of Lawyer Up, an educational company for law students, said she was struck by the strong impression that Jeantel did not want to be there.

"To me, the fact that she was irritated to be there was a major factor because that’s something that is difficult to explain away," Nanos told The Huffington Post. "Why wouldn’t she want to be there? There’s no clear reason why she wouldn’t want to be there other than it’s just an inconvenience."

But sociologists and former law enforcement personnel say the tense history between African Americans and police officers played a major role in both Jeantel's actions after her final phone call with Martin and her interactions with defense attorney Don West during her testimony Wednesday and Thursday.

"The relationship between blacks and law enforcement is a tumultuous one," Rashawn Ray, associate professor of sociology at University of Maryland, told The Huffington Post. "It is plagued by continuous incidents of unjust treatment and discrimination."

Ray said that not only was Jeantel's demeanor a byproduct of that history, but also her hesitance to contact the police came as no surprise to him.

"We know that in predominantly black neighborhoods, frequently not only do we have negative interactions with police officers when they do come, but we know that when we really need them they respond slower," he said. "So if you have had previous interactions where this has happened, then why would you all of a sudden think that they’re going to take anything you may say as being something that’s important?"

Laurie Woods, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University and a retired special agent with the California Department of Justice, said the black community's distrust of law enforcement stems from general practices of placing officers in low-income communities and the unequal balance of power between such authorities and poor civilians.

"There’s a general distrust, because the police put more resources in minority neighborhoods for a variety of reasons," she told The Huffington Post. "For many years, police were allowed to run free and prosecute whomever they wanted to. Police will label people as deviants because of how they look and police have targeted certain people because they’re less likely to complain.

"People who have a lot of power don’t have negative run-ins with the police because it’s easier to stop somebody who’s not gonna say ‘I know the mayor.’ If you have a general distrust of the police and you think the police are not gonna come and help you, they’re gonna come and hurt you, you’re not gonna call the police. So cities have to work really hard to develop that trust."

Ray said that this history of distrust and the consistent unjust treatment of lower-income, minority communities, coupled with Jeantel's traumatic experience of both losing a friend and any previous potential negative interactions with law enforcement, all contributed to her attitude on the stand.

THE DEFENSE'S BIG MISTAKE

Jeantel was not the only subject of criticism during the trial. Viewers also chastised defense attorney Don West for his treatment of the teen throughout cross-examination. Although West seemed to focus on the holes in Jeantel's testimony in an attempt to get jurors to doubt her credibility, observers say he ultimately made a mistake that may have helped both viewers and jurors empathize with Jeantel.

The length of the cross-examination may have hurt West more than it helped him, said Jules Epstein, associate professor of law at Widener University School of Law. Epstein said although it was clear that West was challenging Jeantel's credibility, his strategy may have been flawed.

"Credibility isn’t all or none," Epstein told The Huffington Post. "The jury might believe 20 percent, 50 percent, 99 or 100. There is no automatic rule that says a juror must disbelieve you because you lied about something. People lie to us all the time but we still believe them about other things. It didn’t help her, how badly it hurt, I don’t know. I will say it hurt a lot less badly in a long examination than it would on a short one."

Ray agreed with Epstein's assessment, saying that although Jeantel's demeanor was contrary to how society has been socialized to view interactions between lawyers and witnesses, the longer she remained on the stand, the more her credibility increased, because she appeared to be more authentic.

"The longer she was on the stand, I think her presentation of self and the way she interacted with Don West became people expecting for her to say something off the cuff," Ray said. "I think what came through was how candid she was, and regardless of how people disliked her, I think what actually happened was that her candidness turned to a form of trust in terms of believability even if they didn’t like her and they didn’t like the way she presented herself."

According to Ray, Jeantel's lack of ability to code-switch -- a tactic of going back and forth between languages or language varieties that many minorities use -- increased her credibility over time.

"We expect that there are certain places where you’re gonna be in front stage, and on the witness stand, I mean it probably doesn’t get more heightened than that. For Jeantel, she doesn’t necessarily have that code-changing mechanism, we see that oftentimes with people who are lower class, regardless of their race," he said. "But what that leads to is a form of candidness and authenticity, because as long as she was on the stand, [she] was very consistent. If this is just is who she is, then we are getting a very authentic and candid version of not only who she is but also what happened that night."

In addition to length, Ray said West's treatment of Jeantel could also hurt the defense's case.

"Her malcontent and her dismissiveness and the way that she at times tried to condescend Don West, really came down to the fact that I think people realized that Don West tried to make her seem stupid," Ray said. "People don’t really like when someone is trying to make someone else seem stupid. And that became very clear."

WILL THEY RELATE?

Regardless of the general population's perception, all of experts interviewed agreed that the decision in the case may all come down to whether or not the jury, which is made up of all women -- five white and one Hispanic -- will be able to understand Jeantel.

"They’ll be able to understand, but they’re not gonna be able to relate," Woods said. "Will five white women have had her experience? Probably not."

Ray said the jurors' personal experience -- including occupation, age and whether or not they have children -- will influence whether or not they perceive Jeantel as a teenager or an adult.

"Black teenagers, as their bodies develop, become viewed as being much older and in many ways more dangerous than white teenagers," he said. "So if individuals are watching this and they see Jeantel, and view her as an adult, then your expectations for what she should do become very different than if you view her as a teenager and more similar to a child."

Nanos said she's worried about the jurors' ability to identify with Jeantel as the most significant representative of Trayvon Martin.

"She’s the closest thing we have to a voice from the grave," she said. "That’s one of the reasons why her background and everything about her is so critical because she’s not just a witness, she’s his witness."

"My concern is that the jurors are going to feel very alienated by her. They’re going to feel like she is not like them, like she is different from them," she continued. "My concern is that the jurors may discount anything that would have helped the prosecution's case and may associate her with Trayvon Martin and decide that he’s not like one of their sons and that he is of some other world, and in that other world is something that they don’t know about and maybe it was appropriate for George Zimmerman to shoot him.

"It would be a serious miscarriage of justice if that’s the way the jurors came to that conclusion."

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