Key Witness Against George Zimmerman Is Hard to Understand, Harder to Believe


Video via The Orlando Sentinel

Yesterday and today, jurors in George Zimmerman's murder trial heard testimony from a key prosecution witness: Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him right before the scuffle that ended in his death. Jeantel said that Martin repeatedly complained to her about a "creepy-ass cracker" who was following him and that she urged him to run, which he did. After the call was dropped, she said, she called him back about 20 seconds later, and he sounded tired from running. She said he told her he saw the man again, and she heard him say, "Why are you following me for?" She said she heard "a hard-breathing man" reply, "What you doing around here?" At that point, she said, she heard "a bump" as Martin's cellphone headset fell on the ground and "the sound of wet grass." After that, "I calling, 'Trayvon, Trayvon,'" Jeantel said. "I kind of heard Trayvon saying, 'Get off, get off.' Suddenly the phone hung up, shut off."

Jeantel's testimony, which continues as I write, contradicts Zimmerman's claim that he stopped following Martin and was assaulted by him without provocation. Her account implies that it was Zimmerman who tackled Martin, rather than the other way around. How credible is her version of events? Not very.

That bit about "the sound of wet grass" seems like an after-the-fact embellishment; I am not sure what wet grass sounds like, and it is unlikely that Jeantel knew her friend was in the vicinity of it until she read or heard accounts of the shooting long after her conversation with him. Her claim that she "kind of heard Trayvon saying, 'get off, get off'" also smacks of twisting her memory to fit the prosecution's case. As defense attorney Don West showed in his cross-examination, Jeantel's testimony has evolved over time in ways that help the prosecution.

In the courtroom, Jeantel confidently identified the person screaming in the background of a recorded 911 call as Martin. But as West pointed out, she was much less certain about that in a deposition, saying the voice "could be Trayvon," adding, "Like I said, I don't know. But it could be. The dude sound kinda like Trayvon." In an interview with prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, Jeantel said she "heard a noise like something hitting somebody"—a detail she had not mentioned before. Today in court she declared that the sound meant "Trayvon got hit." West pointed out that she was merely speculating, since there was no way she could know that based merely on what she heard over the phone. Jeantel initially told prosecutors that the "noise like something hitting somebody" was the last thing she heard. Later she claimed to have heard someone say "get off, get off" after the "noise like something hitting somebody." Yesterday in court, she mentioned the "sound of wet grass." Today she said it was the sound of people rolling around on the ground. 

West also sought to undermine Jeantel's credibility by highlighting two lies she has admitted: She claimed to be 16, and she said she missed Martin's wake because she was in the hospital, whereas she now says she did not go because she did not want to see her friend's body. There is also the question of why Jeantel, even though she now claims to have heard crucial evidence in a murder case, did not go to the police. Initially, she says, she thought "it was just a fight." After she learned that Martin had been killed, she has said, she figured the police would contact her. She also has said that she thought since they already had identified the shooter they did not need her help. 

Over all, Jeantel is a decidedly unimpressive witness, slurring her words and speaking so softly that at times she can barely be heard, becoming increasingly testy as West highlights the inconsistencies in her testimony. Virtually all of her responses so far have included the word sir, sometimes repeated several times in the same sentence, usually tinged with sarcasm. At one point, in response to West's suggestion that Martin planned to start a fight with Zimmerman, she responded, "That's real retarded, sir." Jeantel has also leaned heavily on the phrase "trust me," which has the opposite of the intended effect. While some of what she is saying may be true, it seems clear that her recollection is colored by a desire to see Zimmerman convicted. As a juror, I would not put much stock in her account. Notably, changing just a few of the more suspect details would make what she claims to have heard consistent with Zimmerman's story. I am not convinced that Zimmerman is telling the truth either, but with star witnesses like this the prosecution will have a hard time erasing the jury's reasonable doubts.

Addendum: In the comments, Tarran points out another embarrassing moment for the prosecution, as reported by ABC News:

A teenage friend of Trayvon Martin was forced to admit today in the George Zimmerman murder trial that she did not write a letter that was sent to Martin's mother describing what she allegedly heard on a phone call with Martin moments before he was shot.

In a painfully embarrassing moment, Rachel Jeantel was asked to read the letter out loud in court.

"Are you able to read that at all?" defense attorney Don West asked.

Jeantel, head bowed, eyes averted, whispered into the court microphone, "Some but not all. I don't read cursive."

It sent a hush through the packed courtroom.