Cross-examination in the dock over Trayvon Martin trial

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The not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has sharply divided America, new polling published by the Washington Post and ABC News has found.

Some 86% of African Americans disapproved of the verdict, most of them “strongly”. Slightly more (87%) dispproved of the shooting. Meanwhile only 33 per cent of white respondents said they disapproved of the shooting while just over half - 51% - said they agreed with the verdict.

Also, 86% of African Americans said they thought black people and other minorities did not get equal treatment under the law, while a majority of whites, 54%, said they thought ethnic minorities received equal treatment for minority groups.

One of the aspects of the case objected to by many who felt that black people and other ethnic minorities are discriminated against in America’s legal system was the cross-examination of Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel - the prosecution’s key witness.

Jeantel was the last person, other than Zimmerman, to have contact with Martin prior to his death. Her evidence that Martin knew he was being followed and the reasons that he acted as she said he did were fundamental to the prosecution submission that an unprovoked Zimmerman had attacked Martin.

Hostile witness

Jeantel, however, was not a willing or ideal witness. During the two days of defence cross-examination, her demeanour was hostile and at times dismissive. The dynamic between her and defence lawyer Don West was uncomfortable at best. Perhaps most importantly Jeantel’s testimony reflected her background in a way that allowed the defence to exploit the differences between her, Martin and those on the jury. It is entirely consistent with the role of defence counsel in adversarial criminal proceedings to take advantage of anything that might undermine the strength of the prosecution case. The verdict will reflect which party the jury finds most credible. The adversarial style of presentation of evidence is based around the requirement that reasonable doubt (or its absence) needs to be established. In the defence’s case, this means, amongst other things, attacking the credibility of prosecution witnesses and their evidence during cross-examination. Cross-examination is an extremely oppressive way to challenge testimony as, even when it is polite, it is designed to confuse or humiliate witnesses by questioning them on aspects of events in minute detail. In the Martin case, the defence was able to construct a narrative where both Jeantel’s version of events lacked the strength that the prosecution might have hoped. To this extent it was able to get Jeantel to concede that she could not know who started the fight and expose some discrepancies between her previous statements and those made in court. This may have gone some way to helping Zimmerman’s lawyers persuade the jury that it was their story which provided the most logical explanation of events. If that were all that the defence had to undermine Jeantel, her evidence might have been viewed more favourably. The defence were, however, also able to point to lies she had told about her age, name and why she had not attended Martin’s funeral. These pointed to her lacking credibility in the sense that the jury might not feel secure in relying on the veracity of her account. ‘Phrases had I never heard’ The real weakness of Jeantel as a witness and perhaps by association Martin as a victim, was that her character and experiences were not things that the jury could relate to. Not only was her demeanour less than ideal, but her entire testimony rested upon a cultural understanding of the situation of the African-American community. Bought up speaking Spanish and Creole, Jeantel sometimes failed to use phraseology familiar to the jury. Juror B37 told the Anderson Cooper show that Jeantel was “difficult to understand” and used “phrases I had never heard before”. Jeantel (and Martin) did not call the police, something which against a history of African Americans receiving unjust treatment by law enforcement agencies might seem explicable. But these experiences were not shared by the jury, thus this probably alienated her from the expectations of the jury regarding how people should behave when feeling concerned or threatened. The defence was thus able to utilise these linguistic and cultural differences to undermine Jeantel’s credibility in the minds of the jury. Then there was the painful moment when West asked Jeantel if she could read out a letter that she had dictated to be sent to Martin’s mother. She responded that she was unable to read cursive and so the picture was painted of her being uneducated and therefore unreliable. Juries try to reconstruct the most plausible explanation of events by combining their various interpretations of the conflicting evidence and using their life experience to assess the credibility of the different accounts offered. That their life experiences diverged so much from that of the key witness could have been crucial. It was the defence’s job to make the most of that.