SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — One of the prosecution’s most important witnesses in the Trayvon Martin murder case will face a second round of pointed defense questioning Thursday about what she heard while on the phone with the teen right before he was killed.
Rachel Jeantel testified Wednesday that her friend’s last words were “Get off! Get off!” before the phone went silent.
Several times during her testimony Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors, the court secretary and defense attorneys for George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the teen, asked the soft-spoken Jeantel to speak louder and repeat answers. The 19-year-old high schooler, dressed all in black, edged closer and closer to the microphone to try to make herself understood.
Jeantel’s testimony is considered important to the state’s case because she was the last person to talk to Martin before his encounter with Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012. She bolsters prosecutors’ contention that Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder, was a vigilante and the aggressor in his confrontation with the unarmed Martin that night and did not act in self-defense as he is contending in his defense.
When questioned by prosecutors, primarily assistant state attorney Bernie de la Rionda, Jeantel gave many one-word answers, except when specifically describing what the 17-year-old Martin had told her on the phone. As the cross examination turned to defense attorney Don West, Jeantel became visibly more flustered, sometimes crying and giving curt answers, even becoming argumentative.
Jeantel recounted to jurors how Martin told her he was being followed by a man, presumably Zimmerman, as he walked through the Retreat at Twin Lakes townhome complex on his way back from a convenience store to the home of his father’s fiancee.
She testified that Martin described the man following him as “a creepy-ass cracker” and he thought he had evaded him. But she said a short time later Martin said the man was still behind him and she told him to run.
Martin said Zimmerman was behind him and she heard Martin ask: “What are you following me for?”
She then heard what sounded like Martin’s phone earpiece drop into what sounded like wet grass and she heard him say, “Get off! Get off!” The phone then went dead, she said.
Later, she bristled and teared up when West asked her why she didn’t attend Martin’s funeral and about lying about her age. She initially told Martin’s parents she was a minor when she was 18. She said she didn’t want to get involved in the case.
The exchanges also turned testy, including one moment when she urged West to move on to his next question: “You can go. You can go.” And she gave him what seemed like a dirty look as he walked away after he had approached her on the stand to challenge her on differences between an initial interview she gave to Martin family attorney, Benjamin Crump, and a later deposition with the defense. Jeantel explained it by saying she “rushed” the interview with Crump because she didn’t feel comfortable doing it.
And when the judge asked if both sides wanted to break for the day, prosecutors said they’d like to continue, believing the testimony could take another two hours, to which Jeantel reacted with surprise, repeating, “Two hours?” Instead, the judge decided to continue the cross examination Thursday, carefully instructing Jeantel to return at 9 a.m. and not discuss her testimony with anyone.
Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. Zimmerman followed Martin in his truck and called a police dispatch number before he and the teen got into a fight.
Zimmerman has said he opened fire only after the teenager jumped him and began slamming his head against the concrete sidewalk. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic and has denied that his confrontation with the black teenager had anything to do with race, as Martin’s family and its supporters have claimed.
Jeantel’s testimony came after two former neighbors of Zimmerman testified Wednesday about hearing howls and shouts for help in the moments before the shooting.
Jayne Surdyka told the court that immediately before the shooting, she heard an aggressive voice and a softer voice exchanging words for several minutes in an area behind her townhome.
“It was someone being very aggressive and angry at someone,” she said.
During the struggle, she said, she saw a person in dark clothes on top of the other person. Martin was wearing a dark sweatshirt and Zimmerman wore red clothing. Surdyka said she saw the person who was on top get off the body after the shot was fired.
Surdyka said she heard cries for help and then multiple gunshots: “pop, pop, pop.” Only one shot was fired in the fatal encounter.
“I truly believe the second yell for help was a yelp,” said Surdyka, who later dabbed away tears as prosecutors played her 911 call. “It was excruciating. I really felt it was a boy’s voice.”
During cross-examination, West tried to show there was a lapse in what Surdyka saw. Defense attorneys contend Martin was on top of Zimmerman during the struggle, but after the neighborhood watch volunteer fired a shot, Zimmerman got on top of Martin.
West also challenged Surdyka about her belief that the cry for help was a boy’s voice, saying she was making an assumption.
The other neighbor, Jeannee Manalo, testified that she believed Zimmerman was on top of Martin, saying he was the bigger of the two based on pictures she saw of Martin on television after the fight. Manalo also described hearing howling, but she couldn’t tell who it was coming from, and then a “help sound” a short time later.
Under cross-examination, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked why Manalo had never mentioned her belief that Zimmerman was on top in previous police interviews. He also got her to concede that her perception of Martin’s size was based on five-year-old photos on television that showed a younger and smaller Martin.
Martin’s parents have said they believe the cries for help heard by neighbors came from their son, while Zimmerman’s father believes the cries belong to his son. Defense attorneys successfully argued against allowing prosecution experts who claimed the cries belonged to Martin.
Jeantel on Wednesday testified that she believed the cries were Martin’s because “Trayvon has kind of a baby voice.” The defense attorney challenged that, claiming she was less certain in a previous deposition.
Before the February 2012 shooting, Zimmerman had made about a half-dozen calls to a nonemergency police number to report suspicious characters in his neighborhood. Judge Debra Nelson on Wednesday ruled that they could be played for jurors.
Prosecutors had argued that the police dispatch calls were central to their case that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder since they showed his state of mind. He was increasingly frustrated with repeated burglaries and had reached a breaking point the night he shot the unarmed teenager, prosecutors say.
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