Rachel Jeantel was speaking to Trayvon Martin on the phone in the last moments of his life before being shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. Jeantel kept one promise to her old friend, that she would get her high school diploma.
Zimmerman, then 28, fought with Martin on a dark neighborhood sidewalk in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. The case roused a national conversation about racial profiling, self-defense, gun control, vigilantism, civil rights and more. The community’s volunteer crime watchman maintained he shot in self-defense and was found not guilty during a nationally televised trial last July.
On June 1, the Examiner reported that the Florida native graduated from a Miami high school on Friday morning. The school “is only a few short miles from where her friend Martin is buried,” the site said. She testified at his murder trial a year ago, and she was the last person to spoke to the teen alive before his death.
“Her coming is like having Trayvon there saying, ‘You did it. You proved people wrong,’” Jeantel told Yahoo News.
Jeantel was a key prosecution witness, but her demeanor and speech on the stand often detracted from her testimony. Then 19, she used terms such as “creepy” and “cracker” to describe Zimmerman, whom she said was aggressively following Trayvon before their phone call was silenced during the scuffle.
The child of immigrant parents, Jeantel speaks Haitian Creole, Spanish and English, but at times the court reporter and jurors struggled to decipher her dialect and street slang.
Contentious exchanges between the sometimes-testy teen and persnickety defense attorney Don West turned into cultural theater.
“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” the gray-haired West asked Jeantel.
She paused and gave him a stare.
“I don’t understand you. I do understand English,” Jeantel replied.
Then when Jeantel was forced to admit she couldn’t read a letter written in cursive, the court of public opinion was cruel. Her spoken English and mannerisms were mocked on social media and elsewhere.
“They called her everything except the child of God,” said Rod Vereen, a Miami defense and civil rights attorney. “Of course she was frustrated. It was like stepping into an arena, and you don’t know the rules.”
Vereen and Jeantel connected shortly before the trial, when a member of her church asked if he would volunteer to represent her. Vereen said he tried to prepare Jeantel as best he could without knowing the government’s strategy, and in the end, he believes prosecutors missed an opportunity.
“I don’t think they understood the importance of how Rachel was going to fit in,” said Vereen, a former prosecutor. “She was the person that brings out the character of Trayvon Martin.”
t was widely misreported that Jeantel and Martin were dating. She says he was just a close friend whom she first met in second grade — a friend who didn’t judge her plus-size frame or the way she spoke.
“He cared about you,” Jeantel said. “That’s a good human.” The friends had been talking about their future moments before Martin was killed, she said.
The irony tugged at Vereen’s heartstrings. The trial was over in mid-July, but he couldn’t let go. “Rachel was in need, and the whole world was watching,” said Vereen, 52.
With the financial backing of the Tom Joyner Foundation, Vereen assembled a team of three tutors, a psychologist and other mentors to shepherd Jeantel. She was entering her senior year but still reading and doing math at an elementary-school level, Vereen said. For nine months, Jeantel received after-school tutoring three hours a day five to six days a week.