Trayvon Martin case: Prosecution's star witness proves to be a challenge

Rachel Jeantel, who testified that she was talking on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he was shot, returns to the stand Thursday in the George Zimmerman trial. She has not been an easy witness to understand, literally and figuratively.

Jacob Langston, Orlando Sentinel/AP
Witness Rachel Jeantel stares at defense attorney Don West as she gives her testimony during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

Impertinent. Mumbling. Offended. Teary-eyed. Rachel Jeantel, star witness for the prosecution in George Zimmerman's murder trial, was all of those, and more, as her testimony Wednesday provided new details into Trayvon Martin’s last moments and infused racially loaded commentary into an already-sensitive trial.

Trayvon's last moments will continue to be the focus Thursday, as Ms. Jeantel returns to court. On Wednesday, two other eyewitnesses testified that they believed the defendant, Mr. Zimmerman, was an aggressor who attacked Trayvon, who then yelled for help twice “in a boy’s voice.”

The Feb. 26, 2012, shooting in Sanford, Fla., sparked civil rights demonstrations after local police originally refused to arrest Zimmerman because his self-defense claims could not be countered. Trayvon was unarmed, walking back to where he was staying in a gated neighborhood, when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, spotted him, got out of his car, and ended up in a physical struggle with the teenager. Zimmerman shot Trayvon and claims self-defense. Forty four days after Trayvon’s death, a special state prosecutor charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

On Wednesday, Jeantel, 19, gave critics of the prosecution’s case plenty of ammunition with her curious demeanor, causing one blogger to write: “Worst. Witness. Ever.”

“Frequently mumbling her testimony, leading to delays in court as people tried to figure out exactly what she was saying, she became the star of the trial … not necessarily in a good way,” writes Free Britney for The Hollywood Gossip website.

Despite acknowledging telling at least two lies to investigators early in their probe – one about her age, the other about why she skipped Trayvon’s memorial service – Jeantel nevertheless riveted the jury with her testimony recounting what she heard on the phone while she was talking her friend, Trayvon. "A man was watching him. He [Trayvon] told me he was going to try to lose him.” At a later point, Jeantel said she urged Trayvon to “stop playing with him like that.”

The topic of race, Jeantel testified, was brought up by Trayvon himself, who told her on the phone that a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him. He then referred to Zimmerman as a “nigga,” she testified. The phrases had to be repeated several times in court so jurors could understand what Jeantel was saying.

Jeantel said it became apparent that the man had reappeared. “Why are you following me for?” she said she heard Trayvon say, and a “heavy-breathed man” replied, “What are you doing around here?” She said she heard Trayvon say, “Get off, get off,” before hearing the “bump” of Trayvon’s phone headset as it hit the ground, and disconnected.

A few moments later, a shot rang out in the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood.

With Jeantel’s testimony and other eyewitness accounts, the state is trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman bucked neighborhood watch protocol and the advice of a nonemergency dispatcher by following Trayvon, starting a confrontation, and then shooting him because, as one prosecutor said in opening statements on Monday, “he wanted to.”

Before the trial, Zimmerman has said he was returning to his car when Trayvon attacked him, breaking his nose with a punch, then bashing his head against the sidewalk. Forensic photos document Zimmerman’s bloodied face and head. Florida law allows the use of deadly force in self-defense if “grave bodily harm” or “death” appears imminent, but a crux of the Zimmerman trial is whether he waived those protections when he confronted an unarmed teenager who was simply walking back, in the rain, to the house where he was staying.

Given the details that emerged Wednesday, the defense called into question Jeantel’s decision to lie, and pointed to discrepancies in her previous accounts of events. Outside the courtroom, prosecution critics made light of pre-testimony Twitter feed tweets by Jeantel about her “court nails” and references to alcohol and marijuana.

Zimmerman could spend the rest of his life in state prison if a jury of six women – five of them mothers – finds that he committed second-degree murder when he shot Trayvon.

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