News Column

Trayvon Martin Witness Testifies About Phone Call With Victim

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Trayvon Martin's childhood friend from Miami heard him ask, "Why are you following me" then "get off! get off!" seconds before George Zimmerman fatally shot the Miami Gardens teen last year.

Rachel Jeantel, 19, a rising senior at Miami Norland Senior High, testified Wednesday at Zimmerman's murder trial that she had been talking on a cellphone with Martin during his trip to and from a Sanford convenience store the night he was killed.

"He kept complaining that a man was just watching him," said Jeantel, who had known Martin since elementary school.

At some point on Martin's walk back to the home of his father's fiancee on Feb. 26, 2012, Martin told Jeantel that a "creepy-ass cracker" was following him. She suggested he run, but Martin said no.

Jurors appeared transfixed by Jeantel's testimony, leaning forward and taking rapid notes. Others struggled to decipher the Miami teen's slang; a court reporter and defense attorney Don West frequently asked Jeantel to slow down, speak up or repeat what she had said.

The much-anticipated testimony could be key in the case. Prosecutors have tried to depict Zimmerman as an overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer who followed and shot Martin, a 17-year-old who was unarmed. Defense lawyers have said Martin was the aggressor and Zimmerman shot in self-defense as Martin hit his head on the sidewalk.

Jeantel, known only as Witness 8 until Wednesday, said Martin became alarmed as he tried to lose Zimmerman near the community mailboxes at Retreat at Twin Lakes.

" 'Oh, sh--,' " she said Martin told her. " 'The (expletive) behind me.' "

The next thing Jeantel said she heard was Martin asking the man, "What are you following me for?"

"Then I heard a hard-breathing man say, 'What are you doing around here?' "

Jeantel said she then heard a bump that she assumed was Martin's cellphone headset hitting the ground, followed by the sounds of crumpling grass and Martin's voice: "Get off! Get off!"

Under direct examination, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda asked if Jeantel attended Martin's funeral and memorial service. She did not, she said, wiping away tears from her eyes, because "I didn't want to see the body."

Asked if she'd heard the 911 calls with the audible voice of someone crying out, apparently for help, Jeantel said she had. The panicked voice, she said, "sounds like Trayvon's."

On cross-examination, West tried to chip away at Jeantel's credibility. He pointed out that she initially lied to Martin's mother about her age, saying she was 16 when she was actually 18, and about her reason for missing the funeral, which Jeantel told Sybrina Fulton was because she had been hospitalized.

"You got to understand," she said to West in one of several tense exchanges. "You're the last person who talked to a person. You don't know how I felt. You think I really want to go see the body after I just talked to him?"

West also noted that several statements Jeantel made during her March deposition differed from her testimony on Wednesday.

In the deposition, she did not say she heard Zimmerman ask Martin, "What are you doing here?" She also seemed less confident in her deposition than she did on Wednesday in identifying screams on a 911 recording as coming from Martin.

West told the judge he needed "a couple more hours" on Thursday to finish his cross-examination of Jeantel. The witness seemed reluctant to remain in Sanford, responding with a wide-eyed "What?!" to West's announcement he would need more time and saying on the stand, "I'm leaving today."

Jeantel, previously described at times as Martin's girlfriend although she said Wednesday that's untrue, is important for state prosecutors hoping her testimony will help unravel Zimmerman's self-defense claims. Based on what Jeantel said she heard, Zimmerman could be viewed as the aggressor, pursuing Martin.


Her role in the case came to light when Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney, revealed that through cellphone records he had found a young woman who had been talking to Martin from Miami. Jeantel and Martin, a student at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High, had been talking and texting that day, including a series of nine calls in less than two hours right before his death.

Zimmerman, 29, faces up to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder as charged.

The case sparked protests and marches in the 44 days between Martin's shooting death and Zimmerman's arrest. It also led to vigorous debates about race and Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, which does not apply to this case. A six-person, all-female jury will decide Zimmerman's fate.


In other testimony on Wednesday, jurors heard a hysterical 911 call from a neighbor who reported hearing screams and a bang outside her window.

"Oh, my God, I don't know what he did to this person. ... The person is dead, laying on the ground," Jayne Surdyka told a 911 dispatcher. "The young boy. I have never seen anyone killed."

As Surdyka's frantic voice played in court Wednesday, she wept in the witness stand. Jurors took notes throughout the 911 call; several took deep breaths after it ended. The victim's mother, Fulton, trembled throughout the call from her seat in the courtroom gallery.

Surdyka testified that she had her television muted, waiting for a program to start, when she heard a "loud, dominant" voice about 25 feet outside her window on Feb. 26. She described the voice as being angry and agitated as she continued to listen.

She turned off her nightlight to get a better view in the outside darkness, and she saw two bodies "wrestling or shuffling" on the ground. She reached for her cellphone and dialed 911. Her call connected seconds after the single gunshot that killed Martin.

"Someone is screaming for help, and I heard, like, a bang," she told the dispatcher.

Jurors also heard from another neighbor, Jeannee Manalo, who remembered hearing a howling sound and cries for help. She also saw two bodies on the ground outside, one on top of the other.

Before testimony began for the day, Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled in favor of the state to allow into evidence audio recordings of five previous calls George Zimmerman made to police. In most of them, which were played for the jury Wednesday, he reported seeing people he described as suspicious and black. There had been a rash of break-ins and burglaries in his community during that time.

The judge also announced Wednesday that one of the alternate jurors, a young man who competes in arm-wrestling tournaments, was dismissed for "reasons completely unrelated" to the case. Three alternate jurors remain, available to step in if one of the six main jurors cannot fulfill her duties.


(Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.)


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