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Two women, two tales, one trial

Rachel Jeantel's face lit up when describing how she and Trayvon Martin would sometimes talk on the phone all day. "He was a calm, chill, loving person.
Rachel Jeantel speaking out after the trial. (CNN)
Rachel Jeantel speaking out after the trial. (CNN)

Rachel Jeantel's face lit up when describing how she and Trayvon Martin would sometimes talk on the phone all day. "He was a calm, chill, loving person. Loved his family, definitely his mother," Jeantel said on CNN. "And a good friend."

Poised and confident, the 19-year-old Jeantel came off differently than she did anxiously testifying before a Florida court about the last moments of Martin's life. In a post-trial interview, a juror said bluntly that on the stand, Jeantel "wasn't credible."

"I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her," the white, female juror told Anderson Cooper in an interview earlier this week. While Jeantel spoke at length about Martin, the juror–who has insisted on remaining anonymous—was clearly moved by another person, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old and unarmed Martin in February, 2012. He said he acted in self-defense after he was attacked by Martin. A jury acquitted him of committing a crime.

"I think George Zimmerman is a man whose heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods, and wanting to catch these people so badly, that he went above and beyond what he really should have done," said the Juror, identified only as Juror B37.

Listening to the back-to-back interviews which aired Monday, it is hard to believe these two women—different backgrounds, different ages—were in the same courtroom.

Jeantel knew the victim like only a best friend could. The juror was a stranger to Martin who sat in judgment and anonymity. But she left the trial believing she understood and could relate to the defendant. "Do you feel like you know him?" Cooper asked. "I do," juror B37 responded. Then: "I feel like I know everybody."

Jeantel told CNN's Piers Morgan she was "angry" Zimmerman had been acquitted. Juror B37 was forgiving. "I think he just didn't know when to stop. He was frustrated, and things just got out of hand."

The divide between these two women, their perceptions of the case and the two men involved, reflect the same gulf on display nationally in the aftermath of Zimmerman's acquittal. If America is having a "conversation" about race, it's happening in different rooms. The vast majority of black Americans are certain race played a role in Martin's death. Another poll shows that a majority of white Americans believe it did not.

Juror B37 told Cooper that she thought race had nothing to do with it. "I mean, just because he was black and George was Spanish or Puerto Rican, I don't think it had anything to do with this trial, but I think people are looking for things to make race play a part in this trial." Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic, Zimmerman himself has identified as Hispanic.

Jeantel told Morgan on the same network later that night that race had everything to do with it. "It was racial. Let's be honest. Racial," Jeantel said. "If Trayvon was white and he had a hoodie on, would that happen?"

What role race may have played in Zimmerman's acquittal remains a point of dispute. The crowds protesting Zimmerman's acquittal across the country agree with Jeantel: If not for the fact that Martin was black, he'd still be alive.

Legal experts predicted far in advance that a combination of Florida's self-defense laws and the circumstances of the case—the only witnesses to the fateful confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin were themselves—made Zimmerman's acquittal likely.  While it would be impossible, absent new evidence, to prove in court what role race may have played in Martin's death, simply denying that race plays any role is tantamount to denying the role that race plays every day in American life.

For those unhappy with the verdict, Juror B37's interview with Cooper only increased their certainty that race played an important role in Zimmerman's acquittal. Juror B37 insisted that Florida law mandated the outcome, saying that another juror "wanted to find him guilty of something, but couldn't because of the law, the way the law is written."

It's possible to argue that given the Florida law, the way the prosecution handled the case, and the available evidence, that the jury had no choice but to acquit Zimmerman, given reasonable doubt about what actually happened that night. But juror B37's assessment went beyond an analysis of the evidence or the law to determine what was in Zimmerman's heart.

“His heart was in the right place," she said, and she had "no doubt George feared for his life." That conclusion may have been more telepathy than reasonable doubt. While the juror faulted Zimmerman for exiting his car to pursue Martin, she also suggested the two of them bore equal responsibility for what happened, even though Martin was a minor, unarmed and is dead. Juror B37 even told Cooper that she'd be fine with Zimmerman as a neighborhood watchman in her own neighborhood, because "I think he's learned a good lesson." For many, the remark reduces Martin to the familiar cinematic caricature of a black person whose role is to sacrifice himself for the redemption of the nonblack protagonist.

Corrine McConnaghy, a political scientist at Ohio State University, writes that more than 40 percent of white Americans see black males as being more violent. Given implicit assumptions about race, prejudice can persist even if—and often especially if—individuals are pretending to ignore it. John Roman, a scholar at the Urban Institute, looked at self-defense killings. He found that cases in which whites claimed to kill blacks in self-defense were far more frequently seen as justifiable than the reverse. The phenomenon increases in states with "Stand Your Ground laws," such as Florida where Martin was killed.

What terms like "justifiable use of force" and "reasonable doubt" really mean is that justice is in the eye of the beholder. Knowing that, it's impossible to insulate the American justice system from the historical and social forces that shape the country. Race more often manifests not as a flurry of racial epithets, but as a series of assumptions, like who is credible, who looks scary in a hoodie, and who has a good heart, assumptions that may even be individually defensible, but always seem to point in the same direction.

Zimmerman's acquittal also could not have occurred if the jury had not disbelieved Jeantel. During testimony, Jeantel said she and Martin were on the phone minutes before the killing. She heard Martin say "get off" before the call went dead,  evidence meant to show that Zimmerman started the fight. But Juror B37 said that Jeantel "wasn't credible.”

Jeantel had admitted to prior inconsistencies in her story and faced aggressive questions from the defense during her testimony. But  Jeantel was savaged on social media over her appearance, weight and skin tone.

Those who supported the Martin family saw something very different. And the two women have experienced the days since the verdict differently as well.

Jeantel has seen an outpouring of support from leaders in the black community, with popular radio host Tom Joyner even offering to pay her way through college.

The juror said she would write a book but the deal appeared to crumble a day after her appearance on CNN amid a backlash on twitter. Four fellow jurors put out a statement distancing themselves from Juror B37, saying she was speaking only for herself. By Wednesday, Juror B-37 released a statement that focused for the first time on Martin.  "My prayers are with Travon's parents for their loss, as they have always been."