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Four witnesses in Trayvon Martin case change their stories

Three key witnesses in the second-degree murder case against George Zimmerman change their accounts in ways that could damage the defendant. The fourth abandons her initial story altogether.

May 25, 2012|By Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner
  • George Zimmerman, at a bond hearing in Sanford, Fla., faces a second-degree murder charge in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman, at a bond hearing in Sanford, Fla., faces a second-degree… (Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel…)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Evidence released last week in the second-degree murder case against George Zimmerman shows four key witnesses made major changes in what they say they saw and heard on the rainy February night when he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Three changed their stories in ways that could damage Zimmerman. One man who initially told police Martin was atop Zimmerman punching him "MMA-style" — a reference to Mixed Marital Arts — later said he was no longer sure about the punches. The teenager may have simply been keeping Zimmerman pinned to the ground, he said.

A fourth witness abandoned her initial story — that she saw one person chasing another. Now she says she saw a single figure running.

They were re-interviewed in mid-March, after Sanford, Fla., police handed off the case to State Atty. Norm Wolfinger. The case changed hands again when Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor.

Zimmerman, 28, was arrested April 11 on a charge of second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense, and is out on bond awaiting trial.

Martin was staying with his father's fiancee, who lives in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community. Zimmerman called police to report him as a suspicious person. Then he followed Martin, who was returning from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. An altercation ensued and Martin was shot in the chest.

The witnesses changed their stories in these key ways:

• Witness 2: A young woman who lives in the gated community was interviewed twice by Sanford police and once by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

She told authorities that she had taken out her contact lenses just before the incident. In her first recorded interview with Sanford police four days after the shooting, she told lead Investigator Chris Serino, "I saw two guys running. Couldn't tell you who was in front, who was behind."

She stepped away from her window, and when she looked again, she "saw a fistfight. Just fists. I don't know who was hitting who."

A week later, she added a detail when talking again to Serino: During the chase, the two figures had been 10 feet apart.

That all changed when she was re-interviewed March 20 by a state agent. That time, she recalled catching a glimpse of just one running figure, she told investigator John Batchelor, and she heard the person more than saw him.

"I couldn't tell you if it was a man, a woman, a kid, black or white. I couldn't tell you because it was dark and because I didn't have my contacts on or glasses.... I just know I saw a person out there."

• Witness 12: A young mother who is also a neighbor in the town-home community never gave a recorded interview to Sanford police, according to prosecution records released last week. She first sat down for an audio-recorded interview with a state agent March 20, more than three weeks after the shooting.

During that session, she said she saw two people on the ground immediately after the shooting and was not sure who was on top.

"I don't know which one.... All I saw when they were on the ground was dark colors," she said.

Six days later, however, she said she was sure: It was Zimmerman on top, she told trial prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda during a 2 1/2-minute recorded session.

"I know after seeing the TV of what's happening, comparing their sizes; I think Zimmerman was definitely on top because of his size," she said.

• Witness 6: This witness lived a few feet from where Martin and Zimmerman fought. On the night of the shooting, he told Serino he saw a black man on top of a lighter-skinned man "just throwing down blows on the guy, MMA-style."

He also said the one calling for help was "the one being beat up," a reference to Zimmerman.

But three weeks later, when he was interviewed by a state agent, the man said he was no longer sure which one called for help.

"I truly can't tell who, after thinking about it, was yelling for help just because it was so dark out on that sidewalk," he said.

He also said he was no longer sure Martin was throwing punches. The teenager may have merely pinned Zimmerman to the ground, he said.

He did not equivocate about who was on top, however.

"The black guy was on top," he said.

• Witness 13: He is important because he talked with Zimmerman and watched the way he behaved immediately after the shooting, before police arrived.

After this neighbor heard gunfire, he went outside and spotted Zimmerman standing there with "blood on the back of his head," he told Sanford police the night of the shooting.

Zimmerman told him that Martin "was beating up on me, so I had to shoot him," the witness told Serino. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, then asked the witness to call his wife, Shellie, and tell her what had happened.

In two subsequent interviews about a month later — one with a state investigator and one with De la Rionda — the witness described Zimmerman's demeanor in greater detail, adding that he spoke as if the shooting were no big deal.

Zimmerman's tone, the witness said, was "not like, 'I can't believe I just shot someone!' — it was more like, 'Just tell my wife I shot somebody' … like it was nothing."

rstutzman@tribune.com

jeweiner@tribune.com

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