SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A woman who was on the phone with unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin moments before he was shot by a neighborhood watchman rejected attempts by a lawyer in a Florida court to depict Martin as the aggressor in a struggle that ended in his death.
A former resident of the gated community where Martin was killed also testified on Thursday that she saw the watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, on top of Martin during the fatal encounter.
During an argumentative cross-examination of the phone call witness, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, a defense lawyer said that she embellished her account of the conversation with her longtime school friend after news coverage portrayed the shooting as “a racial thing.”
In earlier testimony in Seminole County criminal court on Wednesday, Jeantel said that shortly before Martin was fatally shot, he complained about a “creepy” man who seemed to be hunting him down as he walked back to the house where he was staying with his father.
Jeantel repeatedly denied altering her story and said she never watched the news.
On Thursday, Jeantel also rejected defense attorney Don West’s attempts to depict Martin as the aggressor in the fight that ended with his death, a portrayal that would support Zimmerman’s claim that he fired in self defense.
She suggested Martin would have ended the phone call first if he was preparing to attack someone.
West asked whether the noises Jeantel heard on the phone call could have been Martin smashing Zimmerman in the face.
She refused to agree with West that Martin hid and approached Zimmerman. “Trayvon told me the man was behind him and kept being close by him,” Jeantel said.
Zimmerman, 29, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in the central Florida town of Sanford at the time of the February 26, 2012 shooting. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.
Martin was a guest of one of the homeowners and was returning after buying snacks at a convenience store when he was shot in the chest during a confrontation with Zimmerman.
The case triggered civil rights protests and debates about the treatment of black Americans in the U.S. justice system, since police did not arrest Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, for 44 days.
A former Twin Lakes resident testified on Thursday that she heard the scuffle behind her home and heard someone yelling “help.”
Speaking through a translator, Colombian-born Selma Mora testified that the person who was on top during the scuffle was the one who survived the fight, and that he got up and walked away after the gunshot was heard.
The person on top was wearing a garment in “some sort of a pattern between blacks and reds,” she said, which were the colors of a jacket that Zimmerman was wearing that night.
So far, three former residents have testified for the prosecution that they saw someone who appeared to be Zimmerman on top during the incident, which took place by a walkway between units in the community of townhomes.
Even though several were close enough to hear the struggle, the prosecution highlighted the fact that none of them heard a crude death threat that Zimmerman says Martin made moments before he shot him.
One neighbor who was watching TV with her husband at the time told the court on Thursday it sounded so close that she thought the fight might end up crashing into her back porch.
“They kept getting closer and closer,” said Jenna Lauer, who muted her television when she heard the cries for help.
The defense is expected to have witnesses who will provide a different version of events, with Martin on top during the scuffle.
Prosecutors say Zimmerman profiled Martin, suspecting him of being up to no good, and killed him in an act of vigilante justice. The defense says Zimmerman was out doing his job as part of the neighborhood watch and simply trying to investigate something that he perceived as suspicious.
Zimmerman does not deny killing Martin. He says he did so only after he was attacked and Martin smashed his head repeatedly into a concrete sidewalk.
The jurors paid close attention to Jeantel’s testimony, taking notes and asking several times for her testimony to be repeated because they could not hear her soft-spoken, sometimes mumbled, words.
Jeantel has acknowledged she lied about her age and about her reason for skipping Martin’s funeral. Jeantel said she was merely seeking anonymity and never imagined she would be called as a witness.
The prosecution faces a tall order to win a conviction for second-degree murder, and under Florida law must convince all six jurors that Zimmerman acted with “ill will” or “hatred” and “an indifference to human life.”
Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has since been copied by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.
Writing by Jane Sutton and David Adams; Editing by Grant McCool and Bernard Orr