By Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel
7:59 PM EDT, June 26, 2013
SANFORD — From the witness stand Wednesday, the state's star witness in the George Zimmerman murder trial, Rachel "Diamond" Jeantel, gave her account of Trayvon Martin's last seconds — and they were dramatic.
While on the phone with Trayvon, he told her a man was following him, someone he described as a "creepy-ass cracker," Jeantel said. He got close enough to Trayvon that she could hear the man say, "'What are you doing around here?'"
Jeantel then heard a "bump," followed by something she described as "grass sound." Trayvon said, "Get off. Get off," then the phone went dead, she testified.
Jeantel's account, though, was nearly lost amid the problems and spectacle she created. She used street slang, was sometimes defiant and talked so fast and so softly that it was often impossible to make out her words.
The court reporter interrupted her a dozen times, asking her to repeat herself. Jurors interrupted, too, although not as often, and stopped when Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson told them, "You can't ask questions. If you can't understand, just raise your hand."
Defense attorney Don West had problems, too, and kept objecting when Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda began paraphrasing her answers in an attempt to be helpful.
Jeantel, the most anticipated witness of the trial, spent 21/2 fascinating, frustrating hours on the witness stand and is to return at 9 a.m. Thursday for more, when West is scheduled to continue his cross-examination.
When West told the judge he expects that to last about two more hours, Jeantel blurted out, "What?"
Her most important job is done: telling jurors what she heard in Trayvon's final seconds of life. But she still has some explaining to do, and prosecutors will likely try to fix her reputation.
She admitted Wednesday to two lies. She told Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and family attorney Benjamin Crump shortly after the shooting that she was 16 when she really was 18. She wanted Fulton to think she was a minor, just as Trayvon was, she said.
And she said she lied, again to Fulton and Crump, when she said she had missed Trayvon's wake because she was in a hospital.
She made that up, she said, because she did not want to see his body.
She did not find out until two days after the shooting that Trayvon had died, she said. She also said that when the phone went dead, she thought Trayvon had gotten into a fight and that his father had likely come to his rescue.
Zimmerman, a 29-year-old former Neighborhood Watch volunteer, is accused of profiling, following, confronting and murdering Trayvon, who was 17 and unarmed.
Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense after the Miami Gardens teenager attacked him Feb. 26, 2012, in a gated Sanford townhome community. He is charged with second-degree murder.
Jeantel's testimony capped a rocky day for prosecutors.
Early in the day, they called two neighbor eyewitnesses who heard and saw part of the confrontation between Trayvon and Zimmerman the night of the shooting.
If jurors wanted clarity from them, they did not get it.
By the time they stepped down from the witness stand, both had been damaged.
The first was Jayne Surdyka, a former Olympic-caliber marathoner. Just minutes before the shooting, she heard someone make two desperate cries for help — the second she described as a "yelp."
She is convinced, she said, that the second voice was Trayvon's.
"Someone sounded very angry, very agitated," she said. The other person spoke with "a lighter, softer, higher-pitched voice."
She also reported seeing two figures on the ground fighting or wrestling.
But her account does not mesh with other evidence on three key points.
She testified that Trayvon was on the bottom, facedown when Zimmerman shot him. But Trayvon was shot at near-point-blank range in the chest — not the back.
Surdyka said she heard three gunshots. There was one.
She also got their clothing confused, saying the figure wearing black clothing survived, and she saw him stand up and walk around after the shooting.
Trayvon was wearing a charcoal-colored hoodie, Zimmerman a red jacket.
The second neighbor, Jeannee Manalo, also had credibility problems. She testified that she heard "a howling sound," looked out a glass door and saw two figures on the ground fighting.
The one on top was moving his hands "like he's hitting him," she said.
"That's when my husband told me to sit down and mind my own business," she said.
A few seconds later, she heard a shot, she said.
When she was interviewed immediately after the shooting, she told police she could not tell who was on top, but a few weeks later, after seeing photos of Trayvon on television, she told investigators that she was convinced it was Zimmerman because he is bigger.
On Wednesday, that was her testimony again until defense attorney Mark O'Mara pointed out that the photos of Trayvon on which she had relied showed him at about age 10 to 12.
"You're not sure as you sit here today who was where in the altercation?" O'Mara asked.
"No," she answered.
Also Wednesday, jurors listened as prosecutors played recordings of five calls Zimmerman made to police dispatchers in the months before the shooting.
In four he was reporting suspicious people. In each of those cases, the subject was black.
Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel