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Key Witness In Zimmerman Trial To Return To The Stand

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Sanford, Florida, a key witness returns to the stands today in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. Yesterday, the state presented testimony challenging Zimmerman's version of events; the most important witness, a young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he died.

From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Rachel Jeantel is a 19-year-old from Miami who knew Trayvon Martin from the second grade. They reconnected last year shortly before he traveled to Sanford with his father, after being suspended from school. Jeantel says she wasn't Trayvon Martin's girlfriend. He went out with someone else. But they talked and texted a lot.

On that February night last year, Jeantel told prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda she was on the phone with Martin when he was on his way home from a 7-Eleven, where he'd picked up Skittles and a drink. When he got back to the townhome community where he was staying, Jeantel says he told her there was a man watching him.

RACHEL JEANTEL: I asked him how the man looked like. He looked like a creepy ass cracker.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: OK, let me make sure we got that: Creepy ass cracker.

JEANTEL: Cracker, yeah.

RIONDA: OK.

ALLEN: In the courtroom, the court reporter sometimes had difficulty hearing and understanding the soft-spoken young woman, and asked her to repeat her answers.

Jeantel says the man, who turned out to be George Zimmerman, kept following Martin so he decided to run. She says he headed back to the townhome where he and his father were staying. That's when he realized Zimmerman was still behind him.

JEANTEL: He said, why are you following me for? And I heard a hard-breath man kind of say, what you doing around here?

RIONDA: OK.

COURT REPORTER: Wait a minute. Wait up.

(Reading) And then I say, Trayvon. And then he said, why are you following me for? And then I heard a hard...

JEANTEL: Breathing man saying, what you doing around here?

REPORTER: (Reading) A hard-breathing man saying...

JEANTEL: What you doing around here?

ALLEN: Jeantel, still on the phone with him, asked Martin what was going on. But before he answered, there was a bump. She told de la Rionda the next thing she heard were sounds of a struggle in the grass.

RIONDA: You heard a grass sound and then you said something. What did you say?

JEANTEL: I was trying to say, Trayvon, Trayvon, what's going on?

RIONDA: And what did you hear?

JEANTEL: I said Trayvon - I kind of heard Trayvon saying, get off, get off.

RIONDA: Then what did you hear?

JEANTEL: Then suddenly the phone hung-up - the phone shut off.

ALLEN: Since her existence became known, Rachel Jeantel has been a central and controversial witness. In part, that's because she's the one person who can challenge George Zimmerman's version of how the fight began. She was discovered by Trayvon Martin's father, Tracy, after he checked his son's phone records. And she was first interviewed by the lawyer for Martin's parents, Benjamin Crump.

The other reason she's controversial is that in that interview and a later deposition, she lied about two particulars. One was her age. She said she was a minor when in fact she was 18 when Trayvon Martin was killed. She also lied about why she didn't attend Martin's viewing and funeral, saying she was in the hospital.

Jeantel wiped away tears in court, explaining she didn't want to see the body. As to why she lied about it, she said she felt guilty especially toward Trayvon Martin's parents.

JEANTEL: That I was the last person that talked to their son.

ALLEN: In a lengthy cross-examination, Zimmerman's defense attorney Donald West pressed Jeantel about those issues. But as the afternoon wore on, he focused on what Jeantel says she heard Zimmerman say when Martin asked: Why are you following me?

DONALD WEST: The first response that you gave to Mr. Crump that is attributed to the other man, George Zimmerman, is: What are you talking about? And then you changed it.

ALLEN: Jeantel stood her ground, sometimes adopting almost a hostile tone toward West. She said she rushed her responses to Crump and didn't make sure she answered accurately.

Along with her lies, it's a discrepancy the defense hopes to exploit in undercutting Jeantel's credibility with the jury.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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