steffanie rivers

Steffanie Rivers

*Yes, I’m a journalist. But I’ll be the first to admit you can’t believe everything in the news, even if the information claims to be in your favor. Remember when President Barack Obama first was elected and the media wanted everybody to believe racism was over and Affirmative Action should be a thing of the past? While racism might have become less overt, you don’t have to look any further than the internet to realize racists are alive and hiding behind anonymous blog comments. Then there was the recent story about how black and Latino children are closing the gap with whites when it comes to reading skills. I’m glad to hear it. Unfortunately, what I see are more people who resemble Rachel Jeantel.

She’s the teen-aged witness for the prosecution who has spent hours testifying at the George Zimmerman murder trial. Jeantel was on the cell phone with Trayvon Martin moments before Zimmerman shot him to death. One might assume that Jeantel would want to do her part to help convict the man who killed her friend. But she has been a reluctant – some might say hostile – witness and I know why.

On the witness stand she admitted she “can’t read cursive” and needed help from a friend to write a letter to Martin’s parents explaining what she knew about the night he was killed. The last time I heard someone say they “can’t read cursive” we both were in elementary school. Also her command of the King’s English is well below what it should be for a 19-year old, even if English is not her first language. She knows that and now we do too. Apparently Jeantel has lived under the radar of the people who should care about her development; people such as family, friends and educators. And I venture to say she’s probably not the only person in that predicament. Don’t wait until the spotlight is on you before you, your friends and relatives learn to read cursive, conjugate verbs and express yourselves in a way that is grammatically correct.  This murder trial has put the spotlight on Jeantel.

Apparently she spent time at the hair dresser and coordinating her attire, but Jeantel should have spent just as much if not more time preparing for cross-examination by the defense. That letter written in cursive that a friend helped write: She should have practiced reading it aloud because of the likelihood that defense attorney Don West would bring it up. Instead of the eye-rolling and smart-alec responses that portray Jeantel in a negative light: Someone should have helped her with more appropriate responses. Practicing answers out loud for a better presentation is not being fake or phony. It’s called being prepared. Anonymous bloggers are not the only people calling Jeantel stupid. Family members of the defense attorney as much as called her stupid on Instagram.

OK, everything is not about what other people think. But now is the time for witnesses to appeal to jurors. And although I believe Jeantel to be a credible witness, I’m not a juror in Zimmerman’s trial. The fact that Jeantel admitted she (1) lied about why she didn’t attend Martin’s funeral, (2) can’t read well and (3) comes across as agitated might harm her credibility with the jury made up of five white women and one “other” (minority) woman. Her behavior might even (in the purse-clutching white jurors’ minds) perpetuate the stereotype that black people – including the victim – are uneducated, thuggish and deserve to be suspects as they walk through the neighborhood under the cover of darkness and a hoodie.

Or maybe her demeanor will have the opposite effect. Maybe some of the jurors have children the same age as Martin and Jeantel who talk, dress and behave in a way that causes them to be misunderstood too. For the sake of justice, I hope so.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex.  Contact her at [email protected] for comments, questions and speaking inquiries.