Rachel Jeantel watches defense attorney Don West while on the stand during George Zimmerman’s trial for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (Reuters/Jacob Langston/Pool)
Rachel Jeantel was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman killed him on the night of February 26, 2012. On the third day of Zimmerman’s murder trial, after opening statements that featured the words “fucking punks” and knock-knock joke, and testimony from a number of witnesses, Rachel took the stand.
Visibly shaken, Rachel recounted the details of her phone conversation with Trayvon the night he was killed. She says he told her that a “creepy-ass cracker” was watching him. He attempted to lose him, but the man kept following, at which point Rachel suggested that Trayvon run. The phone was disconnected shortly after, and when the two were reconnected, Trayvon told Rachel, “The nigga is behind me.” Rachel then heard a bump, the sounds of “wet grass,” and what she thought to be Trayvon saying, “Get off.”
The court took a recess after the state was finished questioning Rachel, as she was too broken up to continue at that moment. When they returned, Don West, a lawyer on Zimmerman’s defense team, resumed the questioning. Rachel’s demeanor noticeably shifted. She became agitated, answering West’s questions with quick “yes”es and exasperated “no”s. The more tedious the questions, the more frustrated she became. She was looking at a man trying to get someone off for killing her friend. West was doing what a defense lawyer does, of course, by trying to catch Rachel in a lie, poke holes in her story and cast doubt on her credibility. And the way she responded reflected the fact she knew exactly what was going on and she was determined not to let him rattle her. She may have frustrated him just as much as he did her.
Rachel’s testimony is an emotional reminder of just what happened. A teenage boy was killed. His family and friends were left to mourn. For some of them, the pain is still fresh. The man responsible walked free for more than a month. There’s a possibility he could be found not guilty.
Several times, West brought up the fact Rachel lied about her reasons for not attending Trayvon’s wake. “You. Got. To. Un. Der. Stand,” she told West, breaking up each syllable to emphasize her frustration. “I’m the last person—you don’t know how I felt. You think I really want to go see the body after I just talked to him?”
Rachel Jeantel isn’t a Hollywood actress. She’s not a trained professional. She doesn’t testify in court regularly. She’s a young black woman missing her friend. She showed up to court to give all the information she had as to what happened the night he died.
“Are you listening?” she asked West at highly contentious point her testimony where it seemed he had either lost interest or chosen to ignore the things she was saying. How many young black women could ask that question to the world daily? We should be listening more. We should hear what the Rachels of the world have to say. It’s unclear how Rachel’s testimony will affect the jury and the ultimate outcome, whether they’ll read her as hostile and uncooperative. No matter what, though, Rachel stood and defended herself and Trayvon (and frankly, many other black youth) against the condescension, against silencing, and against the character attacks. For that, she should be commended and thanked.
Thank you, Rachel Jeantel.
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