Rachel Jeantel: Fish Out of Water, by Djana Milton

milton_smSome legal commentators analyzing the George Zimmerman trial believe “star witness” Rachel Jeantel may have been more detrimental to the prosecution’s case than a help.

It is generally held that Jeantel’s demeanor simmered of contempt, her language skills were less than stellar and her entire being screamed of a lack of sophistication.

But are these things relevant to the process of determining if Zimmerman maliciously killed Trayvon Martin? No.

Specifically, there is a myopic focus on the term, “creepy a– cracker” — language clearly without place in civil 21st century American discourse.  There’s also her less-than-cooperative manner in interacting with the defense and derisive speculation about her physical appearance.

It’s true that Jeantel was a proverbial fish out of water. Her background and upbringing did not prepare her to perform well in a formal courtroom.  Saying this is indicative of the ills plaguing the inner-city has merit.  But Rachel Jeantel is not on trial.  Neither is the inner-city and the destructive forces of its culture and attitude.

Likewise, Trayvon Martin was neither killed in the inner-city nor by any of its residents.

What demands scrutiny is whether Zimmerman had a right, under the law, to shoot Martin on the fateful night in question.  To the degree that Jeantel can assist in illuminating the events that transpired, up to and including the point where Zimmerman took 17-year-old Martin’s life, is relevant and vital.

Jurors must look beyond first impressions, outward appearances and cultural and social divides to glean what they can from Jeantel’s testimony.  Based on contradictions and plausibility, they may decide her answers don’t help them determine Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

Regarding “creepy a– cracker,” it should be understood that rap and hip-hop culture is rife in the world of Jeantel and Martin.  She moves in a universe where that term — and its partner, the “n-word” — is slung about as pervasively as “hello.”  This language is commonly used, referring to both one’s friends and enemies.

Such behavior is indicative of a corrosive culture, but jurors must, for this exercise, take Jeantel as she is.  That she is that way is a topic for another day.

As for her demeanor, it was unmistakable that Jeantel didn’t take well to the grilling she took from a man whose job it is to vindicate the individual who killed her long-time friend.  In a perfect world, she would have come across as more gracious, endearing and earnest. But it’s the job of the defense to badger, beleaguer and — in some ways — harass the prosecution’s witnesses.

Jeantel was not there to aid the defense of George Zimmerman. Neither was she there to compete to be “America’s Next Top Model.”  Any notion that she might have launched into an articulate and compelling dissertation on the merits of “stand your ground” laws and their applicability in the case is out of the question.

She was on the stand to describe what she knew of the last minutes of Trayvon Martin’s life and give voice to words Martin can no longer utter.  Her appearance, cringe-worthy grasp of English and less-than-cooperative posture towards an opposing counsel whose strategy included exploiting her shortcomings on social and literacy fronts may not, in the end, have aided Martin’s cause. They are, however, irrelevant as far as the merits of the case go.

Indeed, Rachel Jeantel’s demonstrated lack of preparation when it comes to advancing her future standing and performing well on a high-stakes stage will likely cause her to encounter roadblocks and barriers in life.

Be that as it may, as far as we know, Rachel Jeantel hasn’t killed anybody.  In the grand scheme of things, there are bigger fish to fry.

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Djana Milton, a member of the Project 21 black leadership network, is a software engineer, a product of Catholic schools and a classically-trained musician, pilot, and former athlete. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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