Direct examination is often considered the most important, some say critical, part of a trial. Lawyers can present evidence: castings of shoe prints, photos of a crime scene, fingerprint evidence. Nothing, however, can impact a jury like hearing evidence related by a real person.
The Stage Is Set
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the power of direct examination in a criminal trial was the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, accused of killing teenager Trayvon Martin. Rachel Jeantel was a crucial, in fact only, firsthand witness for the prosecution.
Martin was on the phone with Ms. Jeantel while he was being followed in a vehicle driven by Zimmerman. Martin told her he was afraid of the man and was trying to flea. This directly contradicted Zimmerman’s claim that Martin was a figure who threatened and beat him, making him afraid for his life.
What Can Go Wrong in Court
The prosecutor’s case hinged on the testimony of Ms. Jeantel. Unfortunately, she presented herself quite poorly on the witness stand. She speaks three languages and is quite smart, but her speech impediment, obvious fear, out-of-place dress, shambling and head-down demeanor, and the use of her community’s patois mixed with nonstandard forms of English all counted against her believability.
Her entire presentation was perfectly acceptable in her own community, but certainly not in a courtroom full of white suburbanites.
Later, one member of the jury related how the rest of the jurors held Jeantel in contempt and constantly made fun of her. In large part because the jurors discounted her testimony and a lone juror’s fear, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder.
How This Happened
The fault for this extraordinary failure in the art and science of direct examination was that of the prosecutors. Many experts believe that Zimmerman may not have been properly charged, but the handling of Ms. Jeantel seemed to have at least equal effect.
Lawyers often buy proper clothing and find hairdressers for witnesses. They coach witnesses in how to walk, how to hold their heads up and look directly at the persons in the courtroom. They never coach their witnesses what to say, merely how to say it.
Lawyers on both sides practice with their witnesses, having associates take turns playing prosecutors or defense attorneys. They put witnesses under stress and even yell at them and call them liars, so witnesses are ready for any scenario.
Since Ms. Jeantel has a severe speech impediment, the prosecutor obviously had a duty to instruct the jury and those in the court as to the problem. By pointing out that fact that she is a college student with the ability to speak several languages, it would show her intellectual ability.
Jeantel should have been presented as someone who could tell the difference between Martin being afraid or acting like a predator. This is what should have happened.