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Zimmerman trial: Star witness faces grueling cross-examination

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A star witness in the prosecution’s case against George Zimmerman, charged with murdering unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, faced a second day of grueling cross-examination Thursday as Zimmerman’s defense attorney seized on discrepancies and omissions in her descriptions of a phone conversation with Martin.

Rachel Jeantel, 19, was the last person to speak with Martin, who was 17 when he was shot to death by Zimmerman on the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.

Zimmerman claims self-defense; prosecutors allege Zimmerman, 29, profiled Martin because he was black, stalked him and forced a confrontation that ended with Zimmerman -- a neighborhood watch captain in his gated community -- firing a shot into Martin’s chest.

GRAPHIC: Who's who in the Trayvon Martin case

Martin, who was walking in the rain after going to a convenience store to buy a bag of candy and a soft drink, had been on a cellphone call with Jeantel in the minutes before encountering Zimmerman.

In her testimony Wednesday, Jeantel said she heard Martin ask someone why they were following him, and then heard a second voice ask Martin: “What are you doing around here?”

Under cross-examination Thursday, Jeantel said she did not mention Zimmerman’s alleged words to Martin when she described the exchange to Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, on March 19, 2012.

In a phone interview that same day with the Martin family attorney, Benjamin Crump, she gave a different account of  Zimmerman’s alleged statement to Martin. During that conversation, she told Crump that she heard him say: “What are you talking about?”

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The defense is hoping that such discrepancies will further undermine the already shaky witness, who has admitted lying about at least two issues: her age and her whereabouts the day of Martin’s funeral.

During her first day of testimony, Jeantel said she originally told Martin’s family she was only 16 when she was 18, because she hoped that being identified as a minor would help protect her privacy. Jeantel also said she falsely claimed to be in the hospital the day of her friend’s funeral when she was not, because she “didn’t want to see the body.”

The defense, which denies that Zimmerman -- whose father is white and whose mother is Latina -- racially profiled Martin, also seized on Jeantel’s earlier comments to Crump that she believed the killing was racially motivated. 

Jeantel said that during her March 19, 2012, phone call with Crump, the attorney asked her if she believed “it was a racial thing.” But she conceded that a recording of the phone call does not include Martin asking the question.

“So you decided it was a racial thing because someone told you it was a racial thing, or you came up with it on your own?” West said. “How did you decide it was a racial thing?”

“Because of how the situation happened,” Jeantel replied. After being repeatedly pressed to elaborate, Jeantel said her belief came from Martin’s description of being followed in the rain by someone and watched as he stood in an area trying to stay out of the rain.

“Everything you’ve told us is based upon whatever Trayvon Martin told you,” West said.

“Yes,” the witness replied.

“So when you say it’s a racial event, what did he tell you that made him think it was a racial event?” West said.

“He described the person that was watching him and following him … like he’s being stalked,” Jeantel said.

“What makes that racial?” West asked. He eventually brought Jeantel back to her testimony Wednesday during which she said Martin described the man following him as a “creepy … cracker,” using a slang term for a white person.

Jeantel told West she did not consider that a racial comment.

“You don’t think creepy ... cracker is a racial comment?” West said, incredulously. “No,” she replied.

When Jeantel was asked why she had not included the "creepy … cracker" comment in her letter to Fulton, during her phone interview with Crump, or during a deposition under oath with chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, Jeantel noted she did include the word “creepy.”

She also said that during a face-to-face meeting later with De la Rionda, which took place in Sybrina Fulton’s home, she left out the slang term because she did not want to use such words in front of Martin’s mother. 

“That’s disrespectful,” she said.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Twitter: @tinasusman

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