Did the Judicial System’s Prejudice Against Certain Dialects Allow George Zimmerman to Walk Free?

Prejudice against dialect in justice system

Credit: Getty Images

A linguistics professor from Stanford University believes that prejudice towards certain African-American dialects allowed George Zimmerman to be acquitted of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

In the midst of the search for solutions to racial inequity in the justice system, linguistics professor John Rickford says the country is overlooking the powerful impact of prejudice against certain dialects in the courtroom. 

Rachel Jeantel was a close friend of Martin’s who was on the phone with him when Zimmerman approached him.

She was a key witness whose testimony had the potential to give an entire jury a better idea of what happened moments before Martin was killed, but instead the jury was focused on what they considered to be “ungrammatical blather,” according to Rickford.

Rickford said her dialect needed to be recognized as a “variety of English that’s been in existence for centuries.”

“She speaks a very systematic, regular variety of AAVE (African American Vernacular English),” Rickford told Stanford News. 

African American Vernacular English is more commonly referred to as Ebonics.

If the jury would have recognized this as a different dialect and had the courts offered some sort of translator, Rickford believes the verdict in the case would have been different.

Social media users said the girl’s testimony was incomprehensible but Rickford claims he had no problem keeping up with what Jeantel had to say.

“Speakers of AAVE and linguists who have studied this most distinctive variety for more than 50 years knew exactly what she meant when she used certain systematic features,” he explained.

He recalled multiple examples of this including when Jeantel answered, “He by the area where his daddy fiancée house is.”

Rickford explained that the meaning of that sentence was, “He is by the area where his dad’s fiancee’s house is.”

The linguist believes that there were many points in Jeantel’s testimony when jurors didn’t understand her, which caused them to accuse her of contradicting previous statements that had been written down by a third party.

He also insisted that Jeantel was unable to catch the mistake due to her limited literacy.

At one point, transcripts of Jeantel’s testimony in the deposition claimed she said she could not hear who yelled for someone to “get off” during the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin.

“I couldn’t know Trayvon,” the transcript read.

Rickford believes she said something different.

“When another linguist and I listened to the TV broadcast of the recording played in court we heard, instead, ‘I could, an’ it was Trayvon,’ “ he said. “Now we would need to listen to an excellent recording of the original deposition, using good acoustic equipment, to verify these exact words.”

While he wasn’t sure of what Jeantel did say, Rickford said he was positive that it wasn’t what was written on the transcripts.

Over 100 Trayvon Martin rallies over the weekendThe lack of African-Americans on the jury, however, allowed such misunderstandings to go by without any questions.

“African Americans on the jury—especially fluent AAVE speakers—would have understood Jeantel, and the presence of even one such juror could have helped the others to understand what she was saying,” Rickford added. “But the defense did a good job of making sure there were no African-American jurors in this trial.”

Not only was the key witness often misunderstood, but Rickford said she was immediately discredited for her dialect.

“People speaking non-standard English are even seen as being of poor character,” he added.

Some argued that Jeantel is at fault for the misunderstandings, but Rickford argues that it is up to the jurors to make sure they understand witnesses rather than the other way around.

He also pointed out the inequalities in America’s justice system that led to a Black teen taking the stand and not being able to read an entire transcript of what she allegedly said in court.

Her limited literacy is a sign of “the failure of public education in minority-dominant schools in Florida and across the United States,” Rickford said.

For now he just hopes that the issues of prejudice against such dialects in the judicial system will be solved so it won’t post a threat to justice in future cases.

“I don’t think justice was served,” he said. “One wonders why jurors voted for acquittal without seeking clarification of Jeantel’s crucial testimony.”


Back to top