Prosecution's Star Witness Cross-Examined In Zimmerman Case

Testimony resumed Thursday in the George Zimmerman trial. One of the state's key witnesses, Rachel Jeantel, was back on the stand for more grueling cross-examination by the defense. She was on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

It's been two days of riveting testimony in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman is the neighborhood watch volunteer who first followed and then fatally shot the unarmed teenager. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. He says the shooting was in self-defense.

A young woman who was on the phone with Martin up until moments before his death has been on the witness stand. Parts of her testimony contradict key parts of George Zimmerman's version of events. And today, she went through a tough cross-examination.

NPR's Greg Allen is following the trial, which has included some pretty strong language. We want to caution our listeners about that.

Hey there, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So first, tell us about this young woman. Her name is Rachel Jeantel.

ALLEN: That's right. She's a 19-year-old. She's from Miami, and she knew Trayvon Martin from when they were in grade school, in second grade together. They reconnected last year shortly before Trayvon Martin went to Sanford, Florida, with his dad, after he was suspended from high school.

This woman, Jeantel, says she wasn't Trayvon Martin's girlfriend, just a friend. But they spent lots of time talking and texting. And she was on the phone with him for hours that day - February 26th of last year - when he was on his way home from a convenience store with Skittles and a drink.

CORNISH: And so, she was on the phone with Martin when he first saw George Zimmerman?

ALLEN: Yes, and in court, Jeantel said Martin told her when - first told her when he saw someone watching him and following him. And that's the person that, of course, turned out to be George Zimmerman.

In cross-examination today, Zimmerman's lawyer, Donald West, asked Jeantel about comments she made, saying that she thought the fight between Martin and Zimmerman was racial. So she told West that that was in part because of what - how Trayvon Martin described Zimmerman to her. And here's a little bit of what they said today about that in court today. And this has some of that strong language we warned about.

DONALD WEST: Describing the person is what made you think it was racial?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

WEST: And that's because he described him as a creepy ass cracker?

JEANTEL: Yes.

CORNISH: Now, between yesterday and today, Rachel Jeantel spent sat least six hours on the stand. Why was it so long?

ALLEN: Well, she's the prosecution's star witness. She's really the only person, besides George Zimmerman, who can testify about how the fight between Zimmerman and Martin got started. Zimmerman says it was in self-defense, that he acted in self-defense when the fight began after Trayvon Martin sucker-punched him.

Jeantel tells a different story. She says when Martin realized Zimmerman was following him, he began running toward home. When he slowed down, then he realized that Zimmerman was right behind him. She says Martin then asked: Why are you following me for? And Zimmerman said: What are you doing around here? Then Jeantel says there was a bump.

In an earlier deposition, she said it seemed like Martin was hit by something. But here's what Zimmerman's lawyer, Don West, said today about that.

WEST: You don't know that Trayvon got hit.

JEANTEL: He could have. He had...

WEST: You don't know that Trayvon didn't, at that moment, take his fist and drive it into George Zimmerman's face.

JUDGE DEBRA NELSON: Please lower your voice.

WEST: Do you?

JEANTEL: No, sir.

CORNISH: Greg, a lot of the prosecution's case rests on this young woman. I mean, has she proven to be credible for them?

ALLEN: Well, that's the question, of course. And she - we know that she's already lied under oath in an earlier deposition. She lied about her age. She said she was a minor. And also about why she didn't go to Trayvon Martin's wake and funeral: She said she was in the hospital, but she wasn't. As to why she lied, she told the court that she didn't want to see his body and she felt guilty about not going.

And some key parts of her story have changed over the last 16 months. The defense today spent hours picking apart some of those comments. And it's really going to be up to the jury to decide how credible she is.

CORNISH: People are also picking apart her demeanor and behavior in court.

ALLEN: It has not been a typical witness by any means. She was openly hostile towards Zimmerman's lawyer. She even referred to prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda as the bald-headed dude. And she spoke in a way that was hard for many in court to follow. The court reporter had to keep stopping her, get her to repeat what she'd said. But under tough questioning from the defense, she stuck to her story.

As an example, she says after that bump that we talked about, she heard sounds of a scuffle and then Trayvon Martin saying: Get off, get off. And then West challenged her on that. Here's some of that tape.

WEST: And for that matter, you don't even know what get off means, whether that means somebody on top saying that the person underneath was saying get off or somebody was backing up and saying get off. Or what...

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: Objection, argumentative.

NELSON: Let me hear the rest of the question.

WEST: ...or what may have been meant if, in fact, you even heard it.

RACHEL JEANTEL: I did hear get off, sir.

ALLEN: Rachel Jeantel is done for now, but we may be hearing more from her. The defense says they might - may call her back later in the trial.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thank you.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

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