The smearing of Rachel Jeantel

So why is the star witness in the George Zimmerman case being treated like a defendant?

Topics: Rachel Jeantel, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Editor's Picks, Florida,

Rachel Jeantel is a 19-year-old Florida woman. On Facebook and Twitter, she’s been known to post photos of her nails and talk about drinking. She is also the last person to have spoken with Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman shot him to death last year, the woman who was on the phone with him when his fateful encounter unfolded. She is known in the justice system as Witness #8 in Zimmerman’s trial. She is, in fact, the prosecution’s key witness. But you’d be forgiven if you’d gotten the impression recently that she was sitting up there to defend herself.

Jeantel does not fit the comfortable image of the grieving girl. As Rachel Samara wrote Wednesday in Global Grind, “A predominantly white jury is not going to like Rachel Jeantel,” a girl “who has no media training and who is fully entrenched in a hostile environment.” There is confusion over whether or not she was Martin’s girlfriend, which eradicates her chances of being depicted as a devastated young quasi-widow. On the stand, she has been blunt, hostile and at times seemingly confused. Online, she has a documented history that includes partying. She is not thin or blond or demure. So there goes her credibility.

This week, the Smoking Gun carefully picked through her social media history, uncovering such bombshells as a recent image of what she described as her “court nails.” She has posted photos of liquor bottles and declared that “wowww I need a drink” and tweeted “party time let get high” [sic]. The Smoking Gun also reports that she’s posted “a sexually suggestive series of photos,” “made references to Martin’s death, referred to acquaintances as ‘bitch’ and ‘nigga,’ and wrote about having ‘jackass lawyers on my ass.’” She has in recent days deleted several dozen of her more damning tweets. And so Smoking Gun commenters have, in their turn, declared that she’s not just a “thug” but “proof the gene pool NEEDS more chlorine!” … “and maybe some arsenic too.” Funnily enough, there’s no mention on the site that on Monday she also posted, “I’m a friend god damn it,” or that she loves Jill Scott and Janet Jackson.

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Here is what is true about Jeantel. She has publicly admitted to underage drinking and getting high. She is a poor speller (at least on social media). Her way with words is not calculated to win favor – she has testified that Martin told her “a creepy-ass cracker” was following him. She has responded to the defense’s line of questioning with an icy “You got it?” and “That’s retarded, sir.” The Daily News describes her diction as “often difficult-to-understand” and says it’s “cringe-worthy” and “humiliating” that she couldn’t read a letter out loud on the stand because she says, “I don’t read cursive.” Jeantel has also admitted to law enforcement that she lied about her initial claim that she didn’t attend Martin’s funeral because she was hospitalized at the time; she now says that she felt too “guilty” to face his parents and “didn’t want to see the body.” She admits that at the beginning of the investigation, she said she was under 18, because she didn’t want to get involved. She is unpolished and emotional.

So is she a reliable witness? That’s yet to be determined. And watching her struggling to articulate “the sound of wet grass” to the jury, you can see not just her frustration but defense lawyer Don West’s undisguised exasperation. But when outlets like MSN gleefully seize upon the fact that she’s posting photographs of her nails, they invite exactly the kind of troubling and deeply offensive conclusions about what a “bitch,” what “ghetto trash,” what an “ugly ho” “buffalo” she is, that they have been racking up ad nauseam.

Of course it’s the job of the defense to question her and cast doubt on her testimony. And of course it is significant that her version of events has varied. There’s a lot at stake. George Zimmerman decided Trayvon Martin’s fate on Feb. 26, 2012, and now a jury will decide his. A jury that, by the way, is part of a justice system that is not supposed to exclusively serve the best educated and most articulate of our citizenry. So now would be a good time to point out that Jeantel’s weight, her nails, her sex, her color – these things have precisely jack to do with her account of what happened the night Travyon Martin died. Justice is supposed to serve teenagers too, and people who party and who don’t hide it when they’re angry or flustered, and women who can’t read cursive. It’s supposed to serve people whose dialogue wasn’t written for them by David E. Kelley. Remember that. Remember that Rachel Jeantel is not the one on trial.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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