POSTED: 3:45 a.m. HST, Jun 27, 2013
SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — George Zimmerman’s defense attorney on Thursday questioned a friend of Trayvon Martin about why she had given differing accounts about her last phone conversation with the 17-year-old in the moments before he was fatally shot by the neighborhood watch volunteer.
Defense attorney Don West asked 18-year-old Rachel Jeantel why her accounts about what she heard over the phone right before Martin encountered Zimmerman differed in a deposition, in a letter to Martin’s mother and in an interview with an attorney for Martin’s parents.
She is one of the prosecution’s most important witnesses because she bolsters the contention that Zimmerman was the aggressor. She was on the phone with Martin moments before he was fatally shot. She testified Thursday for a second day in a row.
Jeantel testified Wednesday that her friend’s last words were “Get off! Get off!” before the phone went silent.
Jeantel recounted to jurors how Martin told her he was being followed by a man 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 that he thought he had evaded him. But she said Martin told her a short time later 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?”
In one account, according to West, she said Zimmerman responds, “What are you doing around here?” In another account, according to West, she says Zimmerman said, “What are you talking about?”
She then heard what sounded like Martin’s phone earpiece dropping into 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 the confrontation had anything to do with race, as Martin’s family and their 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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