Commentary: A Witness for Trayvon Who Stands Her Ground

Rachel Jeantel is a teenager who has been thrust into an extraordinary role in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman.

Posted: 06/27/2013 04:13 PM EDT

I must admit, I’m kinda feeling Rachel Jeantel.

While watching the proceedings in the George Zimmerman trial in the death of Trayvon Martin, I have found the two days of testimony by the last person to speak with the 17-year-old student to be nothing short of riveting.

Let’s be honest. Jeantel is not your average witness. She is a 19-year-old Miami resident who is due to complete high school next year. Her speech mannerisms are utterly urban, about as far from the queen’s English as one could imagine. And her disposition on the stand ranged from annoyance to sheer antagonism.

Yet, what was incredibly fascinating about watching her on the stand was her clear determination to be herself and to stand firm in presenting her account of the events on the night Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman in February of last year.

She was peppered with questions by Zimmerman’s lawyers, who were determined to portray her as a witness with varying accounts and to cast her as being less than credible. But no matter what was thrown at her, she showed a determination to, well, stand her ground.

Jeantel is, of course, a star witness for the prosecution. She testified about the cell phone conversation she had with her close friend Trayvon Martin as he walked from a 7-11 convenience store to the home of his father’s fiancée in a gated apartment complex in Sanford, Florida, one evening. She talked about how her teenaged friend, Trayvon, had talked about his consuming interest in getting to the house and watching the NBA All-Star game.

She maintained that Trayvon was annoyed by the fact that he was being followed by a “creepy-a-- cracker,” a term he apparently used for Zimmerman and one that was apparently the source of captivation and undue focus by the defense attorneys. She told, in heartbreaking detail, how she heard Trayvon ask Zimmerman why he was following him. She told of the last thing she heard her teenage friend say on the phone, “Get off. Get off.”

Throughout her time on the stand, the lawyers for Zimmerman sought to find ways to puncture her credibility, often in condescending and pejorative ways. In fact, her time on the stand was so protracted because defense attorney Don West constantly asked her to repeat herself, to talk slowly, as if he were seeking to understand the language of an alien from another planet.

The daughter of Haitian and Dominican immigrants, Jeantel’s first language was Creole. She later picked up English and has clearly become conversant in the language of urban Miami. But West continued to speak to her as if she were some outlandish extraterrestrial rather than a teenager. He asked her about the expressions used in “your culture,” as though teenagers of all races don’t have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies.

Through it all, Jeantel would not be moved or dissuaded. She made it abundantly plain that she was not impressed with the authority of this lawyer and showed she could volley with the best of them. “What are you talking about?” she asked West at one point. “What are you saying?”

Jeantel is a teenager who has been thrust into an extraordinary situation. She is a star witness in one of the most highly watched trials in modern times, testifying about a phone call with a friend who was killed shortly after their telephone conversation. She admitted to feeling guilty about being Trayvon’s last conversational partner and not knowing how deadly that moment was for him. She never hid who she was or how she felt. Clearly she was reluctant and displeased about being there.

She has already been a highly talked about figure in the world of the Internet, with some finding her appalling and others applauding her (I suspect that how one views her has a great deal to do with one's familiarity with African-American teenagers). Her feelings are readily understandable and it's refreshing to see her resolve to state her perspective, even if it means refusing to kowtow to lawyers questioning her.

She is impressive to me because she never swayed from presenting Trayvon Martin as a young man who was thinking of nothing more sinister than the jump shots he hoped to see on television later that night. It remains to be seen what the jury will do with that information. But for her part, she presented it in a way that was consistent and that did justice to her friend.

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