Rachel Jeantel entered the world’s stage 12 twelve months ago as a key witness in the George Zimmerman trial. Jeantel was the last person to converse with Zimmerman’s victim, Trayvon Martin, and was on the phone with him when he first encountered his killer. Jeantel’s testimony was a crucial aspect of the prosecution’s case, but her bold responses to the defense team’s probing questions elevated Jeantel from a witness to a national figure. Now, Jeantel’s battling an unreasonable burden: Feeling responsible for Zimmerman’s acquittal.
In a recent interview with CNN, Jeantel said she wished she would have been behaved differently during the trial, and that she partially blames herself for Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Jeantel believes the jurors didn’t take her testimony seriously because her appearance and the way she articulated herself on the witness stand. Self-reflexivity is an admirable quality for Jeantel to possess, but she has no reason to be anchored to guilt because Zimmerman’s acquittal is not her burden to bear.
Perfect witnesses don’t exist. The American Bar Association finds that most witnesses are anxious and fearful, and this can manifest on the stand in a myriad of ways. For Jeantel, testifying in a televised trial that unearthed simmering racial tensions, could’ve led to her demeanor on the stand.
Or maybe it was the trauma of losing her closest friend and knowing she was the last person to speak with him while he was alive. Or maybe it was her being questioned by two attorneys attempting to demean Martin, her speech or her mere presence.
The brashness of Jeantel’s testimony could’ve been fueled by a number of factors, but the failure of the prosecution to protect her from badgering placed her in a vulnerable space no witness deserves to be in. The enormity of her task as a key witness is something many will never grasp, and it isn’t Jeantel’s obligation to explain.
More importantly, her boldness didn’t sway the jury because their minds were already made up. No matter how articulate and serious Jeantel could’ve been on the stand, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The jury couldn’t possibly fathom Martin as a victim. Instead, he was placed on trial. Martin’s character – which was no doubt still developing – meant more to this jury than him losing his life because of unwarranted fear.
America’s criminal justice system is broken. It acquits killers of black men and women while simultaneously unleashing a war on drugs that places black and Latino men and women in prison in disproportionate numbers. None of those biases are Jeantel’s fault. Her testimony couldn’t prevent a system from doing what it does best: Placing people of color on trial.
Jeantel could’ve been the perfect witness, and it still wouldn’t have mattered. The system that prosecuted Zimmerman was broken, continues to be broken and will forever remain broken, and that is not Jeantel’s burden.