Rachel on the Stand: A Clash of Cultures
We all speak colloquially on occasion. It’s the nature of the English language. There are ways you speak when you are around friends your age. There is a way you speak when you are around your friend’s parents. Still another way you speak around your own parents. These modes of communication are always uniquely couched in the context and the intended audience. This basic premise is the foundation for this post about whom some are saying is the “star witness”: Rachel Jeantel.
If context is key, then so is the age and experience of the individual communicating, as well as the nature of the conversation. All of these things are important in interpreting the message. Much has been said about the speech of this young lady. Why she has failed to keep her volume level high. Why she appears visibly upset with the defense counsel during questioning. Without seeming to offer a definitive explanation for her testimony, I think some things need be said:
To begin, the nature of a trial is adversarial. Less important than what “actually” happened is what one can prove. A defense attorney once told me there is no “truth” at trial. There is simply their version and your version. Which is why trials are set up the way they are. The State has the burden of proof, and thus goes first and calls witnesses. However, after the State’s questioning of a State’s witness – called direct examination – the other side gets to ask questions: cross-examination.
Cross-examination is specifically intended to highlight inconsistencies in a witness’s testimony. What you see on television (witnesses breaking down and admitting that they are lying) hardly ever happens in real life. What does happen is what we are seeing in the George Zimmerman trial. We see a young girl, under stress and being asked repetitive questions over the course of multiple days, being worn down. Each and every component of often hastily-given statements examined under a fine-tooth comb. Imagine the frustration.
If you’ve never been cross-examined, you can’t imagine the pressure. Now I’m not a lawyer, just a humble law school graduate attempting to enter the profession in-between blog posts. However, I have seen cross-examinations and been the subject of one. It was a small issue, no one’s life was on the line, but it was nevertheless intense. You are sworn to tell the truth. An adult you don’t know stands over you and grills you. You attempt to be articulate and truthful, but you often misspeak. You omit things. You honestly forget.
Imagine a scenario where today I ask you about a conversation you overheard in the next room of your office. You know some of the voices, but not all. Then you go about your business, and a week from today, I ask you again what you heard and who was saying what. All the while I’m writing down your statements. Keep extending this hypothetical to a year from now where I ask you all these things again. Each time you add something that you didn’t say a year ago, I highlight that. Each colloquial turn of phrase I don’t understand, I ask you what you mean. That is the very essence of cross-examination. Highlighting the imprecision in speech that everyone has.
Finally, consider the jury here: White women, perhaps inexperienced with the African American vernacular we all know like the back of our hands. If any of you have immigrant parents, you know that a particularized method of speaking English can seem confusing to others. Then add a layer of cultural difference. We’ve heard this from White pundits on television. She seems angry. She seems inarticulate. She’s disrespectful. These are critiques of body language. If you’re American and have traveled abroad, you know other cultures have entirely different ways of conveying certain emotions that we convey with an inflection or an emphasis. For someone of the majority, who as never been steeped a minority culture and who, likely, has never had to interact with other races terribly-often, there must be ostensible difficulty translating these things.
This very same clash of cultures is happening on live television. A young Black woman is stifling her anger while trying to convey the last words of a friend who was shot dead just after she got off the phone with him. An impatient White lawyer is cross-examining her. She can see the killer sitting only feet from her. Imagine how you’d respond in that environment. Think about how you spoke when you were 19. Now imagine all of this is being judged by six women who aren’t your race. They don’t know the slang you take for granted. They also don’t know the emotions in your heart.
The adversarial context of the trial, the age of the witness, the witness’s race and speech patterns in addition to the age, race, and experiences of the jurors all matter here. This poor girl’s Facebook, Twitter, and every other aspect of her life are in the echo chamber of the national media. I admonish you all to think about how you would respond to all this. And by the way: a friend of yours was shot dead and each second you spend in that courtroom reminds you of that notion.
Continue to Question the World Around You.