By Tom Brown and Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) – In the minutes before he died Trayvon Martin told a friend with whom he was speaking by phone that a “creepy” man was “watching him,” jurors in the murder trial of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman heard on Wednesday.
Rachel Jeantel, 19, whose identity had been a closely guarded secret until her appearance in court, testified that she had spent several minutes on the phone listening to the unarmed black teen describe his efforts to get away from Zimmerman, until the line suddenly went dead.
Jeantel said Martin, then 17, “kept complaining that the man was looking at him,” as he walked back to the house where he was staying with his father in the central Florida town of Sanford.
Zimmerman, 29 and part Hispanic, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford at the time of the February 26, 2012, killing. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.
Martin was a student at a Miami-area high school and a guest of one of the homeowners. He was walking back to the house after buying snacks at a nearby convenience store when he was shot in the chest during a confrontation with Zimmerman.
Martin family lawyer Ben Crump said Jeantel’s testimony helps undermine Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense.
Jeantel, with whom Martin had been friends since elementary school in Miami, told the court that Martin tried to run away and thought he had lost the stranger, until he reappeared. She heard Martin ask the man, “Why are you following me?” before the voice of “a hard-breathing man” replied, “What are you doing around here?”
Next she heard a bump, the sound of grass and Martin saying, “Get off!, Get off!” before the line was cut.
The racially charged case triggered civil rights protests and debates about the treatment of black Americans in the U.S. justice system, since police did not arrest Zimmerman for 44 days.
Earlier on Wednesday jurors listened to telephone calls that Zimmerman had made to police in the months before he killed Martin.
Defense attorneys had objected to use of the tapes in the trial, describing the five phone calls made between August 2011 and February 2012 as “irrelevant” and contending that they would tell jurors nothing about Zimmerman’s thinking on the night he shot Martin.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson denied their objection and allowed the calls to be entered as evidence on Wednesday.
Prosecutors have said the calls, in which Zimmerman reported what he described as suspicious activity by black men, demonstrated “profiling” and were key to understanding the defendant’s state of mind on February 26, 2012 when he called police to report Martin, minutes before shooting him in the chest at point-blank range.
To win a conviction for second-degree murder, the prosecution must convince jurors that Zimmerman acted with “ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent,” and “an indifference to human life,” according to Florida jury instructions.
“It’s not a who done it. It is what was Zimmerman’s state of mind before he did it and did he act in justifiable self-defense,” said David Weinstein, a Miami lawyer and former prosecutor.
In the Zimmerman phone calls, he can be heard reporting what he described as suspicious behavior by various black men, using words or phrases similar to those he used to report Martin to the police.
“They typically run away quickly,” he said in one call, referring to two men whom he said matched the description of suspects in a recent neighborhood burglary.
The six-member panel of acting jurors who will decide Zimmerman’s fate are all women, five of whom are white and one Hispanic.
In opening statements on Monday, the prosecution portrayed Zimmerman as a man with a concealed weapon who committed a vigilante-style killing, while Zimmerman’s defense team laid out the self-defense argument.
Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has since been copied by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.
(Editing by David Adams, Bernard Orr, Toni Reinhold)