Race, Credibility, Communication and Evidence in the Zimmerman Trial, and Beyond

On July 13, 2013, jurors in the Zimmerman trial found him “not guilty.”

Since then, CNN’s interviews with Juror B37 and prosecution star witness Rachel Jeantel, plus ABC’s interview with juror B29, have provided additional perspective, illuminating how race, credibility, communication and misperceived “evidence” perhaps influenced the verdict.

Juror B37 said in her Anderson Cooper interview that she and other jurors didn’t believe race played a role in the trial.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos disagreed, insisting, “Race had EVERYTHING to do with the trial! When they picked the jury, the case was over! Race is still the biggest issue in the criminal justice system.”

Given the huge differences in Blacks’ and Whites’ experiences with police and the courts in America, and their polarized responses to the verdict in this and other cases, it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.

She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them

She also said she didn’t find Rachel Jeantel’s testimony credible, and that “because of her education and communication skills, . . . [Jeantel] just wasn’t a good witness.”

Asked by Anderson whether she found it hard to understand Jeantel, B37 exclaimed, “A LOT of . . . times! Because she . . . was using phrases I had never heard before.”

That jurors found Jeantel incomprehensible and not credible partially explains their verdict. Because, having known Trayvon since kindergarten, and having talked to him on the phone extensively the night of his encounter with Zimmerman, until minutes before he died, Jeantel was the closest proxy to Trayvon himself.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara, reacting to President Obama’s remarks, said the Zimmerman verdict fit the “facts.” And juror B29 said that although she believes Zimmerman was guilty, the “not guilty” verdict accorded with the evidence.

But “facts” and “evidence” are filtered through one’s perceptions and pre-judgments, and shaped by witnesses and lawyers on both sides.

In her 2012 interview with prosecutor Bernie De La Rionda, and her six hours on the witness stand, Rachel Jeantel provided considerable “evidence” that wasn’t sufficiently understood or believed by jurors.

That Trayvon put his “hoodie” on and sheltered near the mailboxes because it was raining, not to look or act like a thug.

That he kept complaining that this creepy stranger (a sexual pervert?) was following him. And (clearest in the Morgan interview), that he didn’t return to his dad’s apartment because he feared putting his young step brother at risk.

That Trayvon ran to escape Zimmerman until he was breathless, and couldn’t run anymore. But even then, discovered him right by his side.

These accounts don’t square with the story Zimmerman told police (that Trayvon was lying in wait and jumped him). And they might have provided sufficient evidence for manslaughter.

Law professor Robert Weisberg explained why in the Stanford Lawyer on July 18, 2013: “Even if at the initial moment Zimmerman was reasonable in believing that Martin posed a fatal threat to him, earlier, initial aggressive action by Zimmerman was what put this scenario in motion.”

Perhaps Jeantel’s testimony was lost in (non-) translation because jurors didn’t realize her use of “BIN paying attention,” meant she’d been paying attention for a while and still was. Or that Trayvon’s use of nigga for Zimmerman was distinctly “new school,” making him the opposite of the racist the defense alleged he was.

Maybe jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades. (See my July 10, 2013 blog on Language Log)

Jeantel’s bristling attitude may have contributed too, along with the defense’s blistering attempts to impeach her, and the prosecution’s limited success in preparing and presenting her as a witness. Note how much more human and likeable both Jeantel and Trayvon came across in the Piers Morgan interview.

One wonders, however, why jurors voted for acquittal without seeking clarification of Jeantel’s testimony, or asking for a more specific explanation of “manslaughter.”

And one wonders about the thousands of African Americans who are stopped, prosecuted and imprisoned disproportionately (42% of inmates, but only 13% of the U.S. population). Is this because of similarly ominous intersections of race, communication, credulity and “evidence”?

To ask this is to go beyond the Zimmerman trial. As we should.