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Key witness recalls last moments of Trayvon Martin's life

Note: This story quotes testimony with offensive language including racial slurs.
screengrab from Sanford court feed
screengrab from Sanford court feed

Note: This story quotes testimony with offensive language including racial slurs.

In halting, sometimes tearful testimony, a friend of Trayvon Martin’s who was on the telephone with him just moments before he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, testified that she heard Martin shout, “Get off!” right before the phone went dead.

Rachel Jeantel, 19, one of the most anticipated witnesses for prosecutors in Zimmerman’s trial on second-degree murder charges, told jurors that Martin said he was being watched and then followed by a “creepy” stranger.

Jeantel said that Martin told her that he would try to lose the man, but that he was unable to. She then said that she heard a man’s voice asking what Martin was doing there. And that she then heard Martin ask, “Why are you following me?”

Jeantel testified that she heard what she believed to be physical contact between the two, Martin’s shouts of "Get off" and then, nothing.

The stranger from the night of the shooting would later be identified as George Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he shot the teen in self-defense after Martin, 17, attacked him. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.

Jeantel’s testimony capped an emotional third day of witness testimony in the trial. Earlier in the day defense lawyers for Zimmerman questioned the testimony of two of Zimmerman’s former neighbors who said they heard cries the night of the shooting. Defense attorneys argued that neither of the women clearly witnessed what happened during the confrontation on that dark, rainy February night when Martin was killed.

One of the women, Jane Surdyka, placed a 911 call the night of the shooting and said she heard a young person cry out, before then hearing gunfire.

“In my opinion, I truly believe the second yell for help that was like a yelp, it was [unintelligible], I really felt it was the boy’s voice,” she said.

When Surdyka's emotional call to 911 was played in court, she dabbed tears from her eyes. Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother, buried her head in her hands.

Surdyka said she had never heard Martin’s or Zimmerman’s voice before the night of the shooting.

"You don't know who had the higher voice, or who had the stronger, more dominant voice," defense attorney Don West asked the woman, an unemployed hospital worker.

Another neighbor, Jeannee Manalo, also testified that she heard a cry for help and then gunfire.

Manalo testified that she saw two people on the ground struggling. After the shooting, Manalo told investigators that she could not identify who they were or their gender. But on the stand Manalo was certain that the bigger of the two people was on top of the smaller-framed person, and that after the shooting, the larger of the two got up.

After seeing news reports that showed photos of both Zimmerman and Martin, Manalo said, she could identify that it was Zimmerman on top of Martin as they tussled on the ground.

“I believe it was Zimmerman, comparing the size of their body,” Manalo told the court.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara then asked what photos of the men she used to judge their sizes. Manalo said she’d seen a widely circulated head shot of Martin wearing a hooded sweatshirt. O'Mara then questioned whether or not such a shot would be a good way to size up the rest of Martin’s body.

But the most dramatic testimony of the day came from Jeantel, one of the prosecution's most important witnesses, who recounted to jurors the last minutes of Martin’s life from her vantage point on the other end of a cell phone call.

Martin spoke with Jeantel as he headed to a nearby convenience store and again while he made the half-mile or so walk back to his father's girlfriend's home in the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes.

The last call between the two took place at 7:12 p.m., according to records taken from Martin's cell phone and later released by attorneys for Martin's family. At 7:17 p.m., according to a police report, the first officers arrived on the scene--a patch of grass between a row of townhouses.

"A man was watching him," Jeantel said, as the jurors scribbled notes in their notepads. “He kept complaining the man was watching him."

When she asked Martin what the man looked like, she said he referred to him as a “creepy ass cracker.” Jeantel said she told Martin to run, to which he responded that he was almost back to the home he was visiting and that he’d walk faster. Martin’s attempts to elude the man had failed, Jeantel said, and that Martin cursed when he realized that Zimmerman was still on his tail.

"Oh, shit,” Martin said, according to Jeantel, recounting his surprise, “the nigga’s behind me."

Several times during her testimony, Jeantel was asked to raise her voice, as jurors struggled to follow her sometimes mumbled testimony. She shifted uncomfortably on the stand, wincing at some questions, responding curtly to others.

Defense attorney Don West grilled Jeantel under cross-examination, questioning the young woman about why she lied to Martin's family. She admitted to insinuating she was a minor at the time of the killing, though she was 18 at the time.

Jeantel also said she lied about why she did not attend Martin’s funeral. She told Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother, that she couldn't attend because she was in the hospital at the time. But she admitted on Wednesday that it was a lie to placate Fulton, and that she was stricken with grief and felt guilty about being the last person to speak to Martin.

"I didn't want to see the body," she said. Later, interrupting West’s line of questioning, Jeantel pleaded: “You got to understand..You were the last person to talk to a person and he died on the phone after you talk to him.”

“You don't know how I felt,” Jeantel said. “You think I really wanted to go see the body after I just talked to him?”

Editor's note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.