Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Guest column: Suddenly, Trayvon Martin's friend is put on trial

Published in Lafayette Journal & Courier, Wednesday, July 3, 2013

By Clyde Hughes

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I realize that George Zimmerman is on trial for the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin this week, but I would like to give a defense to the last person besides Zimmerman to hear Martin’s voice — his teenage friend, Rachel Jeantel.
I did not realize Jeantel would need defending until I saw and heard mainstream and social media accounts of her testimony last week. Jeantel, described as a friend or girlfriend of Martin, was on the phone with him when Zimmerman confronted the teen last year.

A fight ensued and Zimmerman pulled out a weapon, shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense is at stake with Jeantel’s testimony. She claimed Martin tried to run and hide from Zimmerman but the neighborhood watch volunteer pursued him, leading to the confrontation. That would seriously undercut Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.

Don West, a defense attorney in Florida, did pretty much what we would expect defense attorneys to do — pull every trick out of his hat to make a star witness look bad so he can save his client’s life. Facing off against a reluctant teenager with few skills to handle an aggressive (and at times demeaning) interrogation, it is of little surprise that Jeantel would lash out the way she did during the first day of testimony.

My guess is West hoped for as much to make his job of discrediting her in front of the jury easier. He was dealing with a scared teenager who knew while taking the stand that she would have to account for a couple of fibs she told unrelated to her conversation with Martin and knew she would be on the hot seat.

What surprised me was the unrelenting criticism from the Fourth Estate and social media of Jeantel, which came across much of the time as elitist, disconnected and completely out of the touch with the challenges Jeantel faced on the stand beyond simply answering attorneys’ questions.

CNN’s Jake Tapper opened his June 27 show, “The Lead,” with this statement describing Jeantel’s testimony: “Have you ever seen a witness make, ‘Yes, sir,’ sound so much like, ‘Go to hell?’ ” That’s when I knew many of my fellow journalists were off the mark and maybe even lacked the ability to understand Jeantel’s struggles.

There is a culture gap in this country — a canyon-wide, in some instances. And it was put on brutal display during Jeantel’s two-day cross examination by West. I continued to watch Tapper, to see if he would address the world of Jeantel — inner-city Miami, tough streets, rough language and a real fear for authority figures — compared to West, who demanded that she respond like a Harvard-educated scholar.

I got nothing. Not even an attempt to explain why Jeantel had her defenses up the second she took the witness stand. Tapper didn’t even try. He let his “yes, sir, sounds like go to hell” statement stand without explanation. But in his defense, many journalists and experts failed miserably as well.

Now, there was plenty to dissect in Jeantel’s testimony, from the fibs she told about attending Martin’s funeral to her exclusion of Martin screaming, “Get off me,” in previous statements before the trial. Yet, failing to call out West for his outright attempt to embarrass Jeantel by getting her to read a letter written in cursive when he knew she couldn’t read it was yet another low point for the media.

This does not include what amounts to vicious attacks on Jeantel by “social media goons” who compared her with pictures of Jabba the Hut from “Star Wars,” and worse. Longtime African-American journalist and creator of Sherri Williams called Jeantel’s treatment “a social media stoning.”

“She was called fat, ignorant, sassy, ugly and manly,” Williams said. “Jeantel was called everything except what she is, a witness in one of the most significant criminal trials in recent history — a young woman who heard her friend fight for his life.”

How could we expect anyone from Jeantel’s world to trust anyone from your world, my world? How could we expect them to reach out to us in a time of need? How can we expect them to seek us out in a time when justice needs them to?

There were good and bad things you can say about Jeantel’s testimony. At times it was powerful and riveting. At other times, it was clumsy and inconsistent. It’s pretty much what I would have expected out of a nervous teenager in the foreign environment of a courtroom in a high-stakes, nationally televised murder trial. Too bad we were too busy criticizing her looks, voice volume and attitude to notice.

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