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Trayvon Martin case: How Rachel Jeantel went from star witness to 'train wreck' (+video)

Rachel Jeantel, the prosecution’s star witness in the murder case of George Zimmerman, sparked a torrent of commentary from both whites and blacks, much of it negative. Will criticism of her demeanor override her crucial testimony?

By Staff Writer / June 29, 2013

Rachel Jeantel, the witness that was on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before he died, gives her testimony to the prosecution during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel/AP

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SANFORD, Fla.

Nineteen-year-old Rachel Jeantel holds some of the most critical information about the Trayvon Martin murder case. Yet her delivery on the stand in Florida's Seminole County this week drew widespread criticism.

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She was hard to understand, mumbled, acted impertinent, annoyed, rude, and came across, as one cable TV news host said, as a “train wreck.”

But the torrent of negative reaction across bar stools and Twitter became more telling than Ms. Jeantel’s simple testimony relating what she heard on the phone as she talked to Trayvon before the sound of a “thud” on wet grass and a disconnected line. Moments later, Trayvon, an unarmed black youth, was dead from a single bullet from a 9mm Kel-Tec pistol registered to George Zimmerman.

While some have rushed to defend Jeantel’s multilingual background, others leaned hard into her personally, letting fly on social media a swirl of epithets that roughly amounted to dismissal of her as “ghetto trash,” as one commenter said. That reaction has steered the trial into a new phase, reflecting, some commentators argue, more on America’s privileged classes, including blacks, than Jeantel’s trustworthiness as a star witness.

Reaction to Rachel Jeantel on the stand “has been in terms of aesthetics, of disregarding a witness on the basis of how she talks, how good she is at reading and writing,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “These are subtle things that echo literacy testing at the polls, echo the question of whether black Americans can testify against white people, of being always suspect in their testimony. It’s the same old dynamics emerging in a very different guise.”

To be sure, in the scathing commentary about what some called her puzzling demeanor and alleged lack of education was lost her singular background and her youth: A black and Creole girl growing up in a segregated Miami community, she represented part of the problem of the case – an America so divided, that many can’t “code-switch,” or move between the gauzy racial, cultural, and socioeconomic divides that have become hardened with the nation’s first black president, and which have helped fuel political polarization.

“What so much of this really revealed was the gulf between middle-age, middle-class, mainstream codes of behavior and life among youth from poorer, nonwhite neighborhoods … they couldn’t have been further apart if Jeantel were born on the moon,” writes Eric Deggans in the Tampa Bay Times.

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