June 27, 2013
Rachel Jantel (Jacob Langston/The Associated Press)
(Jacob Langston / The Associated Press)

On Megyn Kelly’s “America Live,” legal analysts Faith Jenkins and Jonna Spilbor today clashed over the testimony and demeanor of Rachel Jeantel in the ongoing and fascinating trial of George Zimmerman. Jeantel is the friend of Trayvon Martin who was speaking to him on the phone during the last moments of his life. She spent hours on the stand today and yesterday talking about that phone call, her previous statements about the case, her background, etc. In the process, she has confounded the world of cable news.

In a discussion with Kelly, Jenkins, a former prosecutor, called Jeantel “brutally honest.” Spilbor, a former prosecutor, countered with this assessment: “I don’t think she came across as brutally honest; I think she comes across as brutally ignorant.” A news report in the New York Times characterized her performance this way: “On Wednesday, Ms. Jeantel proved to be a less-than-stellar prosecution witness, showing flashes of anger and irritation.”

Yesterday, on MSNBC, host Martin Bashir and The Post’s Jonathan Capehart addressed defense attorney Don West’s approach to Jeantel. “Culturally unaware” and “cold” was how Capehart framed the matter. Legal analyst Lisa Bloom snapped back at such chatter, saying that’s what a defense attorney does. “First of all, anybody who thinks that a defense attorney in a murder case is going to be warm and fuzzy with a key prosecution witness has it wrong,” said Bloom, who said West had taken a “soft” approach to Jeantel.

Michael Smerconish, a SiriusXM radio host who this afternoon guest-hosted MSNBC’s “Hardball,” said this: “Her credibility is in the eyes of the beholder. On the radio today, it broke on racial lines: I said that I thought yesterday she was a weak witness. And I was overwhelmed from calls by African Americans today who said, ‘you’re completely misreading the situation.’”

Bloom, who is doing outstanding commentary on the case, captured the complexities of the Jeantel factor in a discussion with Smerconish: “Overwhelmingly on social media and elsewhere, a lot of people have expressed support for her. They feel that she was being almost abused on the witness stand. It was harassment, it was too much, it was not fair, people don’t understand her. You know, I look at this through the framework of a criminal trial. This is a murder trial. Every witness who tells a story is going to be cross-examined in the same way that she was. And yet she has elicited a lot of sympathy. She’s a 19-year-old young woman who just finished her junior year of high school. She cannot read cursive handwriting, she had to admit, even though she signed a letter that was written in cursive by a friend and she had the friend write it. This is a woman with perhaps some learning disabilities. There were perhaps some language issues. And, as you say, there’s been a strong sentiment in her favor.”

The sentiment from the Erik Wemple Blog was full absorption and fascination, to the detriment of productivity. Haute-media issues like the National Security Agency and privacy, Glenn Greenwald, the future of newspapers and even Fox News’s relationship to musical patriotism haven’t been able to compete with Jeantel’s time on the stand. We couldn’t figure out whether her rhythmic “yes, sir” and “no, sir” answers were off-putting, perfectly appropriate or somewhere in between. Nor could we make out what she was saying much of the time.

Nor do we trust any of the excellent legal analysts in cableworld to divine the impact that this key witness will have on the jury in the case. It’s way too complicated.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.