A Miami teen’s often-contentious testimony concluded Thursday in the George Zimmerman murder trial, with both sides expressing confidence that Rachel Jeantel’s seven hours on the witness stand had helped bolster their case.
The 19-year-old Miami Norland senior remained adamant, even under intense cross-examination, about what she heard in the final moments of Trayvon Martin’s life, before Zimmerman gunned down the Miami Gardens teen in a Sanford gated community. But she acknowledged that she could not know which man was the aggressor, since she was talking with Trayvon through a cellphone and was not present for the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting.
“The last thing you heard was something hitting somebody?” Zimmerman defense attorney Don West asked.
“Trayvon got hit,” Jeantel replied.
“You don’t know that, do you?” West snapped back, his voice rising.
“You don’t know that Trayvon at that moment didn’t take his fist and drive it into George Zimmerman’s face, do you?” West continued.
The verbal exchange on the fourth day of testimony got to the heart of the nationally watched case. Zimmerman, 29, claims he acted in self-defense, forced to shoot Trayvon after the unarmed 17-year-old attacked him. Prosecutors say Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, profiled and pursued Trayvon; they charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison if convicted.
The case sparked protests and marches in the 44 days between Trayvon’s 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.
Jeantel had been characterized as one of the state’s star witnesses, but parts of her testimony may have helped mitigate damage to Zimmerman’s defense. Her cross-examination exposed inconsistencies in her past statements and that she initially lied to Trayvon’s parents and attorneys.
“The only battle in this courtroom is for justice and truth,” Zimmerman lead counsel Mark O’Mara said after court ended for the day, responding to a question about “who won the battle of West vs. Jeantel.”
“I think we got out some truth today,” he said, “and it’s going to lead to justice.”
It took courage for Jeantel to take the witness stand, an attorney for Trayvon’s family said, adding that the family “is so proud” of her. The teen’s testimony, which stretched over two days, was scrutinized on social media, where everything from her appearance to her speech were subject to discussion.
Jeantel, who speaks Creole, Spanish and English, declined to read a handwritten letter, composed by her but written by a friend, because “I don’t read cursive.” The letter, to Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, gave a cursory overview of Jeantel’s recollection of her phone calls with Trayvon the night he was killed. Jeantel said she cleaned it up because she wanted to spare Fulton the painful details of what she heard.
“She is not a lawyer,” Martin family attorney Daryl Parks said outside the Seminole County Courthouse. “She is a young lady going into 12th grade, and she did her very best.”
Other testimony Thursday came from a T-Mobile representative, who explained how cell phone calls and texts are logged, establishing the timeline in calls between Trayvon and Jeantel. Two people who lived in Zimmerman’s Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood in February 2012 also testified.
One of the former neighbors, Selma Mora, now lives in Miami. Through a translator — she speaks mostly Spanish — she said she heard crying sounds outside her window the night of Trayvon’s death, followed by a thump and silence.
Not thinking what she heard was a gunshot, Mora said she stepped outside to investigate, seeing two bodies, one on top of the other “like riding a horse.” The man on top got up, she said, told her to call the police, then paced around the area with one hand on his head and the other on his waist. The person on the bottom, face-down, never got up, she said.
Jenna Lauer, the other neighbor who testified Thursday, placed a 911 call where shouts and a gunshot are audible. Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, stepped out of the courtroom before the 911 call was played for jurors during Lauer’s testimony.
Lauer said she and her husband muted “Celebrity Apprentice” on their television when they heard voices and then a scuffle outside their window on that rainy evening. “It sounded like sneakers on pavement and grass,” she said.
The noises she said she heard morphed to the sound of people wrestling in the grass, coupled with “grunting” that gradually turned to “yelping.”
She picked up her phone to call 911; soon after the call connected, the gunshot can be heard on the recording. Lauer said she and her husband ducked and scurried upstairs.
Under cross-examination, Lauer confirmed that residents in her neighborhood had been concerned about non-residents walking through their community. Minutes before their encounter, Zimmerman called a non-emergency police number to report Trayvon as a suspicious person.
She also said she couldn’t be sure which of the men was yelping outside her window.
“It sounded like they were desperate,” Lauer said. “Whoever it was really needed help.”