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A tense cross-examination in George Zimmerman trial

The defense suggests that Rachel Jeantel, the last person to talk to Trayvon Martin, lied about her recollections of the night the Florida teen was fatally shot.

June 27, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Defense attorney Don West questions Rachel Jeantel during the trial of George Zimmerman in Florida. Jeantel was the last person to talk to Trayvon Martin before his fatal confrontation with Zimmerman.
Defense attorney Don West questions Rachel Jeantel during the trial of… (Jacob Langston / Pool Photo )

A key prosecution witness' diction took center stage Thursday in the trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, as the defense suggested she had altered her story and lied about her recollections of the night Martin was killed.

"Trust me, they messed up," the witness, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, said at one point when she testified that a written transcript of a deposition she gave to prosecutors in April 2012 was wrong. That transcript quoted Jeantel as saying she "could have" heard Martin telling someone to "get off" during an apparent confrontation with Zimmerman.

During a tense exchange with defense attorney Don West, Jeantel testified that she said she "could hear Trayvon" say, "Get off."

The exchange is important because the prosecution says Zimmerman was responsible for a scuffle that led to Martin being shot dead in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012. Prosecutors say if Jeantel heard Martin telling someone to "get off," it suggests the 17-year-old was attacked. The defense says Martin instigated the confrontation and pounded Zimmerman's head against the pavement, leading Zimmerman to fire in self-defense.

During the fourth day of testimony, the sounds of anguished wails for help once again filled the courtroom as prosecutors returned jurors to the scene of the crime by playing a recorded 911 call from a woman who lived in the housing complex where the shooting occurred.

The woman, Jenna Lauer, described hearing feet shuffling outside her apartment, followed by desperate "yelps."

"Whoever it was really needed help," Lauer said. At some point, she said, "the yelps turned to 'helps.'"

The cries could be clearly heard during her recorded call, as could the single crack of a gunshot, which ended the screams.

Lauer said she could not identify the voice of the person screaming.

Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face 25 years to life in prison if convicted. Since the trial began, prosecutors have called a string of witnesses who lived in the housing complex and who placed emergency calls that night. The defense has tried to call those witnesses' accounts into question by getting them to testify that they could not identify who was screaming or make out the words in the verbal exchange that preceded the screams and gunshot.

During about five hours of cross-examination, Jeantel did not waver from her basic narrative: that Martin told her a "creepy ... cracker" was following him, that the two discussed how he could lose the person trailing him, and that he asked someone, "What are you following me for?"

But under defense questioning, she testified she had added details to her version of events since her first description in March 2012 of what had happened. Among other things, Jeantel said she failed to mention early on that she had heard Martin saying, "Get off," and that she did not mention that she heard someone say to Martin, "What are you doing here?"

"Nobody asked me," Jeantel said when asked why she had not revealed the details when she spoke with the Martin family attorney, Benjamin Crump, in March 2012. She also did not include them in a brief note to Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, in March 2012. Jeantel first mentioned them in April 2012 when she met with prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda and gave a deposition.

West spent much of Thursday morning's court session reviewing that deposition.

"It's how I speak," Jeantel said at one point as West pressed her to clarify discrepancies.

When West asked whether she recalled telling De la Rionda that she heard a noise on the phone "like something hitting somebody," Jeantel replied that she did, and added, "Trayvon got hit."

"You don't know that Trayvon got hit," West said to her. "You don't know that Trayvon at that moment didn't take his fist and drive it into George Zimmerman's face, do you?"

"That's real retarded, sir," Jeantel said as West continued a path of questioning aimed at showing Martin had attacked Zimmerman.

West closed his cross-examination by asking Jeantel about another exchange during her April deposition.

In that exchange, De la Rionda asked Jeantel whether Martin had told her that the man following him had gotten out of his car. According to a written transcript, Jeantel replied, "You want that too?"

Jeantel insisted Thursday she had not said that. West then played a recording of the deposition, on which she could be heard uttering the words.

The discrepancies may help the defense undermine Jeantel's credibility. She has admitted lying in the past about her age — saying she was 16 when she was 18 — and lying about why she did not attend Martin's funeral. Jeantel originally said she was hospitalized but has since admitted she made up the story because she did not want to attend the funeral.

As court wrapped up Thursday, another resident of the gated complex where the shooting occurred was on the stand. The witness, Selma Mora, said she heard two screams outside on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, and saw two figures on the ground, one on top of the other. But she said it was too dark to identify either.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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