Trayvon Martin's friend keeps commitment to slain teen

Memorable witness from George Zimmerman's trial puts in extra effort, proves people wrong

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Yahoo News

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Rachel Jeantel – Keeping a commitment to Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston, Pool)

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Rachel Jeantel – Keeping a commitment to Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, …

In a Miami auditorium less than three miles from where slain teen Trayvon Martin is buried, his friend Rachel Jeantel on Friday was presented her high school diploma, fulfilling the promise she said she made him.

The moment was even more poignant with Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, looking on.

“Her coming is like having Trayvon there saying, ‘You did it. You proved people wrong,’” Jeantel told Yahoo News.

Jeantel was talking on the phone with Martin, 17, in the last moments of his life on Feb. 26, 2012. The unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, then 28, as the two fought 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.

Zimmerman, the community’s volunteer crime watchman, maintained he shot in self-defense and was found not guilty during a nationally televised trial last July.

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.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman (Family handout, AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Gary W. Green, Pool)

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman (Family handout, AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Gary W. Green, Pool)

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.”

Rod Vereen and Rachel Jeantel (Courtesy photo)

Rod Vereen and Rachel Jeantel (Courtesy photo)

It 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.

“When they say it takes a village to raise a child, this is what has happened here,” he said. “Getting her down that aisle has not been an easy task. Rachel is just like any other teenager. They want to buck the system sometimes, and you just can’t let them buck the system.”

One of her tutors, Alix Desulme, didn’t know Jeantel before working with her, but he remembers reading hateful comments about her during the trial.

“The performance was not polished ... her grammar,” Desulme said. “She has made great improvements from then to now.”

Her voice resounds with confidence.

“I did it,” Jeantel said. “The witness who didn’t know how to speak English knows how to speak English through the 12th grade now. I never quit.”

She also earned her driver’s license a few months ago and is looking for a job. The plan is for Jeantel to continue working with tutors on precollege curriculum before enrolling at a university. Becoming a clothing designer could be in her future.

Crossing the stage on Friday “is just the beginning of my life,” Jeantel said.

“When people see Rachel Jeantel now, I want them to say, ‘Wow, there was something good that came out of something so tragic,’” Vereen said.

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).