SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — A friend of Trayvon Martin’s who was on the phone with him shortly before his fatal fight with George Zimmerman testified Thursday that she thought the encounter was racially charged.
Rachel Jeantel testified for the second day in a row, saying she thought race was an issue because Martin told her he was being followed by a white man.
“He was being followed,” Jeantel said.
Her answer came in response to questioning from defense attorney Don West about why she had given differing accounts about what she had heard over the phone when Martin first encountered Zimmerman on a rainy night on Feb. 26, 2012, at the Retreat at Twin Lakes townhome complex.
West suggested in his cross-examination that 19-year-old Jeantel had raised the racial issue in some accounts but not others. In some accounts, West implied, Jeantel said Zimmerman responded one way when he first encountered Martin, but in other accounts she said he responded another way. Jeantel gave her version of events in a deposition, in a letter to Martin’s mother and in a recorded interview with an attorney for the Martin family.
Jeantel 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.
Jeantel testified Wednesday that her friend’s last words were “Get off! Get off!” before the phone went silent. But on Thursday, under cross-examination, she conceded that she hadn’t mentioned that in her account of what happened to Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
She had left out some details to spare Fulton’s feelings, and also because neither Fulton nor the Martin family attorney asked her directly about them, Jeantel said. At one point, West handed her a letter she had written with the help of a friend to Martin’s mother explaining what happened. She looked at it but then said she couldn’t read cursive handwriting.
When asked by West if she had previously told investigators that she heard what sounded like somebody being hit at the end of her call with Martin, Jeantel said, “Trayvon got hit.”
“You don’t know that? Do you? You don’t know that Trayvon got hit,” West answered angrily. “You don’t know that Trayvon didn’t at that moment take his fists and drive them into George Zimmerman’s face.”
Jeantel recounted to jurors on Wednesday 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.
Jeantel’s testimony was more subdued on Thursday, and West took note of her calmer demeanor. She answered many of West’s questions by repeating “yes, sir,” almost in a whisper.
“You feeling OK today? You seem different than yesterday,” West said.
“I got some sleep,” she answered.
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.
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