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2013-06-28

At Zimmerman Murder Trial, Defense Tries to Discredit Friend Who Heard Trayvon Martin’s Final Pleas

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The Florida trial of George Zimmerman is wrapping up its first week of testimony. The neighborhood watch volunteer is charged with second-degree murder for the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, last year. The prosecution’s star witness, 19-year-old high school student Rachel Jeantel, testified over the course of two days on her phone conversation with Martin right before he died. A reluctant witness, Jeantel came under aggressive questioning from Zimmerman’s attorneys, who raised issues of her comprehension of English and manner of speaking. We discuss Jeantel’s appearance and the case’s progression so far with Danielle Cadet, editor of Huffington Post Black Voices.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The trial of George Zimmerman entered its fifth day in Florida. The neighborhood watch volunteer is charged with second-degree murder for the killing last year of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager. On the opening day of the trial, Zimmerman’s lawyer admitted Zimmerman had shot Martin but claimed it was in self-defense after the two had a fight. However, three former residents of the gated community where Martin was killed have testified that they saw someone who appeared to be Zimmerman on top during the fight. On Thursday, a former Twin Lakes resident testified that she heard the scuffle behind her home and heard someone yelling, "Help!" Selma Mora testified that the person who was on top during the scuffle was the one who survived the fight and that he got up and walked away after the gunshot was heard.

AMY GOODMAN: The jury also heard from the woman who was on the phone with Travon Martin just before he died. Nineteen-year-old high school student Rachel Jeantel described the final conversation to prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda.

RACHEL JEANTEL: I was calling, "Trayvon, Trayvon." And then I started hearing a little bit Trayvon saying, "Get off. Get off." [inaudible]

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: OK, let me stop you a second. You heard a grass sound, and then you said something. What did you say?

RACHEL JEANTEL: I was trying to say, "Trayvon, Trayvon, what’s going on?"

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: And what did you hear?

RACHEL JEANTEL: I said Trayvon—I kind of heard Trayvon saying, "Get off. Get off."

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: Then what did you hear?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Then, suddenly the phone hung up, shut off.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: OK, when the phone shut off, what happened then?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Then I had called him back.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: You called Trayvon Martin back?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yeah, yes.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: Were you able to talk to him again?

RACHEL JEANTEL: No.

AMY GOODMAN: During questioning by defense attorney Don West, Rachel Jeantel described what Trayvon Martin had said about the man who was following him.

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

DON WEST: OK, let me make sure we got that. "Creepy ass cracker."

RACHEL JEANTEL: "Ass cracker," yeah.

DON WEST: OK. Is that what you recall him saying?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: OK. And that to mean, you mean, like a white individual?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes, Caucasian.

DON WEST: What did you say to him? Or what did he say to you after that?

RACHEL JEANTEL: So, he kept—he told me the man was looking at him. So I had to think it might have been a rapist. Said, "You don’t know the area; he might have been a rapist."

AMY GOODMAN: Defense attorney Don West questioned Rachel Jeantel about why she characterized the murder as racial.

DON WEST: What’s one thing about what Trayvon Martin told you that made you think this was racial?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Describing the person.

DON WEST: Pardon me?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Describing the person.

DON WEST: I just didn’t—

RACHEL JEANTEL: Describing the person that was watching him and following him, sir.

DON WEST: I see. Describing the person is what made you think it was racial?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: And that’s because he described him as a "creepy ass cracker"?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: So, it was racial, but it was because Trayvon Martin put race in this.

RACHEL JEANTEL: No.

DON WEST: You don’t think that’s a racial comment?

RACHEL JEANTEL: No.

DON WEST: You don’t think that "creepy ass cracker" is a racial comment?

RACHEL JEANTEL: No.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During opening statements Monday, attorneys on each side cast conflicting views of Zimmerman’s motives on the night of the shooting last February. Prosecutor John Guy said Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had profiled the 17-year-old as suspicious and chose to assume the role of a police officer and follow him. He quoted Zimmerman’s own expletive-laced words to a dispatcher.

JOHN GUY: Good Morning. "F—ing punks. These a—holes, they always get away." Those were the words in that grown man’s mouth as he followed, in the dark, a 17-year-old boy who he didn’t know. And excuse my language, but those were his words, not mine.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense lawyer Don West argued Zimmerman killed Martin because he feared for his life after the teenager smashed Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk, which he suggested constituted a deadly weapon—the sidewalk. West told the jury a knock-knock joke toward the beginning of his remarks, a move for which he later apologized.

DON WEST: Knock, knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? All right, good, you’re on the jury. Nothing? That’s funny.

AMY GOODMAN: Zimmerman faces up to life in prison on charges of second-degree murder. His trial is taking place before an all-female jury. Five out of six are white. To talk more about the case, we’re joined now by Danielle Cadet. She’s editor of Huffington Post Black Voices.

Danielle, welcome to Democracy Now!

DANIELLE CADET: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what has happened in this trial so far, the most significant moments.

DANIELLE CADET: I think the most significant moments, starting with the opening statements, I think the prosecution really started very strong in terms of repeating George Zimmerman’s words. I think that their tactic here is really to portray George Zimmerman as a vigilante. And I think opening for—for attorney Guy to open with the expletive really drove that point home to the jury very early on in the trial.

And as the trial has kind of gone along, the state witnesses have been integral. I think Rachel Jeantel’s testimony has been—she really is seen by many people as the prosecution’s key witness. And then the residents, as well, and just their account of what they saw and what seemed to have taken place that evening. It’s very difficult because it was late, it was dark, it was raining, and so—and a lot of people didn’t want to get very close to the situation. So, a lot of just the description of what has—what took place that evening, whether it was, you know, what voices were heard or the tone of the voices, the aggression. Who was on top—I think Mora’s testimony yesterday was extremely important. And when she pointed out—

AMY GOODMAN: She was the neighbor.

DANIELLE CADET: Yes, and—the Latino woman. And when she pointed out the individual on top was wearing some kind of red patterned clothing, that was the first time that someone ever identified the person on top was George Zimmerman. If you’ve seen the photos from the evening that he was at the police station, he had on a red jacket. So that was very telling and a little chilling when she described, you know, him kind of straddling over the body.

And, you know, Jeantel’s testimony, incredibly important. She, being the last person, other than Zimmerman, to have any kind of interaction with Trayvon Martin, and being able to say Trayvon knew he was being followed, I think, is a huge part. And probably one of the biggest takeaways from this week was really Jeantel saying Trayvon knew he was being followed and he was trying to get away, he tried to lose whomever this individual was. And he said to her, "He’s behind me." And I think if the prosecution is able to take Jeantel’s testimony and really drive home the point that Trayvon wasn’t pursuing Zimmerman and that it was actually the other way around, or, on the defense’s side, if they’re able to say, you know, maybe there is a chance that—which Don West was attempting to do yesterday during his cross-examination—he was trying to say, you know, maybe there is a chance that Trayvon walked up to Zimmerman and kind of picked a fight.

So I think there were some really huge pieces here this week of just individual accounts of what—of what took place, because up until now we’ve only had audio, and we’ve only had, you know, a small amount of evidence for individuals to kind of deduce on their own.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, obviously, that was probably the most dramatic part of the first days of the trial. And the prosecution really, as you would expect of a prosecution, was extremely confrontational with her in some of the questioning. The issue of—they tried to make, of differences in her testimony now versus what she had said—

DANIELLE CADET: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in previous conversations with police.

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely. That’s really important. I think that is kind of where the defense is—that’s kind of what they’re holding onto. They need to present Jeantel as uncredible—as though she’s not credible. That’s going to be the prosecution’s biggest challenge—the fact that Jeantel lied about her age, the fact that she didn’t go to the police, the fact that she didn’t come to the funeral, she didn’t attend the wake or the funeral. They need to present her as though she’s not credible and that, you know, her testimony is a little off. Because she—because of such the importance of her being a friend of Trayvon and her being the last individual, literally, to speak to him in the last moments of his life, she is an incredibly important witness. And the defense’s tactic here is going to be to show that she’s not telling the truth, because she hasn’t before. And I think that that was really what Don West was trying to do, was he was saying, "In your deposition, you said this; now you’re saying this. You did this; now you’re doing this."

AMY GOODMAN: So, there were a couple of issues. One was she said she was in the hospital, why she didn’t go to the funeral.

DANIELLE CADET: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But Rachel responded she just felt ashamed—

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —that she hadn’t gone and was afraid to see his body or his parents—

DANIELLE CADET: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —not understanding, until then—

DANIELLE CADET: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that she was the last person to speak to their son.

DANIELLE CADET: Exactly, exactly. And that was—I mean, that was a particularly emotional part of her testimony. She got visibly upset. Tracy Martin got visibly upset. Both of them were crying.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracy, of course, the mother.

DANIELLE CADET: The father.

AMY GOODMAN: The father.

DANIELLE CADET: Tracy Martin, yes. He got visibly upset and, you know, kind of put his head down and was wiping tears away. And Rachel, herself, was—she got very upset. And you could tell that she was uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable with the fact that she was on the stand, she was on television. At this point, her face, for the first time, and her name, you know, was all over television, radio, you know, just nationwide at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And look at what she’s seeing when she looks out on the witness stand.

DANIELLE CADET: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: On the one hand, she’s got George Zimmerman—

DANIELLE CADET: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the man who killed her friend Trayvon.

DANIELLE CADET: Her friend Trayvon, right.

AMY GOODMAN: And, on the other hand, she’s got the parents of Trayvon.

DANIELLE CADET: Exactly, exactly. And I think, you know, even in addition to that, she’s got the defense attorneys, she’s got the prosecution attorneys. She’s in a very—it was very obvious to me that Jeantel was uncomfortable. That’s not a normal environment for a 19-year-old African-American woman from Miami. It’s just not. She was uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable with getting emotional. And I think that she was uncomfortable with being almost chastised and judged on a very public scale.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the jury itself, I mean, because jury selection in these cases are so important.

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Did the prosecution seek to remove African Americans from the jury? How did the selection process work?

DANIELLE CADET: I think the selection process, in and of itself, was very detailed. A lot of questions about—I think there were a lot of general questions to kind of feel out the—the potential jurors, excuse me. And I do think that the defense did make an effort to—I won’t say get rid of African Americans, per se, but definitely eliminate any jurors that would have a potential—would empathize with Trayvon Martin and Trayvon Martin’s family. I think there were investigations as to whether or not there were any jurors—potential jurors who had liked Facebook pages or who were following certain social media accounts, who had posted on Facebook pages or signed petitions. And I believe one juror was dismissed because of some type of Facebook association, whether it was being a member of a—being a member of a pro-Trayvon Facebook group or just, I think, signing on the page or liking the page. So I think that was a—that was a huge goal for the defense in the jury selection.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to play another clip of Rachel Jeantel as she’s questioned by defense attorney Don West. She’s asked to read a letter that was sent to Trayvon Martin’s mother describing what Jeantel allegedly heard on a phone call with Martin moments before he was shot. She says she can’t read cursive handwriting.

DON WEST: Ms. Jeantel, would you take a look at that copy of the letter and let me ask you a couple of questions about it? Do you recognize that letter as being one that you said earlier was prepared to be given to Ms. Fulton?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: And that letter was prepared with the assistance of a friend of yours named Francine Serve [phon.]?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: And you and Ms. Serve talked about what you wanted to be in the letter, and then she helped write it in a way that was legible, correct?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: But the contents of the letter is yours.

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes.

DON WEST: Are you able to read that copy well enough that you can tell us if it’s in fact the same letter?

RACHEL JEANTEL: No.

DON WEST: Are you unable to read that at all?

RACHEL JEANTEL: Some of them I do not.

DON WEST: Can you read any of the words on it?

RACHEL JEANTEL: I don’t understand cursive. I don’t read cursive.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rachel Jeantel. Danielle Cadet?

DANIELLE CADET: I think Rachel’s testimony was, for me, as a woman of color, was tough to watch. Again, I think she was—she was incredibly uncomfortable. I think it was an uncomfortable environment for her. The subject matter was uncomfortable. And just all in all, facing her friend’s killer, I think, just, you know, was really tough. And I think it was also very obvious that she didn’t want to be involved. She seemed—from the beginning, she didn’t really think that she was going to be a serious witness. She wasn’t aware that she was the last person to speak to Trayvon. And, you know, she used a made-up name. She made up her age—you know, she lied about her age. She seemed very in over her head at that moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s play one more clip of defense attorney Don West questioning Rachel on Thursday.

DON WEST: At that point, he decided to approach this man and say, "Why are you following me?"

RACHEL JEANTEL: Yes, sir.

DON WEST: And he could have just run home if he wasn’t there.

RACHEL JEANTEL: He was already by his house, he told me.

DON WEST: Of course, you don’t know if he was telling you the truth or not.

RACHEL JEANTEL: Why he need to lie about that, sir?

DON WEST: Maybe if he decided to assault George Zimmerman, he didn’t want you to know about it.

RACHEL JEANTEL: That’s real retarded, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED: I’m sorry?

RACHEL JEANTEL: That’s real retarded to do that, sir. When you don’t know the person, why a person—Trayvon did not know him.

DON WEST: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rachel Jeantel responding to Don West.

DANIELLE CADET: And, you know, I’ve got to admit—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Also, what do you think is the impact of that testimony on the jury?

DANIELLE CADET: Well, that’s twofold. I’ve got to admit her point there is a very good point. And she was—she was being very matter-of-fact. That doesn’t make any sense for a 17-year-old to confront a man that he doesn’t know, who’s following him and could be dangerous. And I think she was just being very matter-of-fact about that.

I think the effect of her testimony on the jury is incredibly important and really complicated. You’re talking about a jury that is a primarily white jury, and so they—I think there are aspects of Rachel’s testimony and her demeanor that the jury is not going to understand. She seemed very defensive. She seemed very uncomfortable. She seemed aggravated. She had an attitude. She was—there was a lot of tension between her and Don West. And I think that that will present a—it will be difficult for the jury to really understand that. On the other hand, especially with a jury of women—she’s a young woman, she’s 19 years old—I think there will be a little bit of empathy. And this is just, you know, my opinion. I think there will be a little bit of empathy. I think the jury will look at a young girl who lost her friend and sort of understand why she was acting the way she was acting. But I think it’s conflicting, because she did have—she was a bit sassy there on the stand.

AMY GOODMAN: It was also very interesting to see the conversation around why she didn’t call the police—

DANIELLE CADET: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —which is a very loaded question—

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —in the African-American community—

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —feeling that the police will help you or not.

DANIELLE CADET: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And when they said, "Why didn’t you?" she said, "I thought they would call me."

DANIELLE CADET: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And they said, "What are you talking about?"

DANIELLE CADET: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And she said, "Well, I watch First 48

DANIELLE CADET: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —a TV show, and they always go to the last number on the phone, and they call the person."

DANIELLE CADET: Right. I think, again, as you said, in the African-American community, law enforcement is not necessarily seen as an advocate. Ninety percent of the time, the police are seen as the enemy. And, again, I don’t think she wanted to get involved. I think that she wanted to stay out of it. And I think that that is going to be probably the most difficult thing for the jury to understand, because it is something that almost exclusive to the minority community, particularly to the African-American community. I think to a lot of African Americans watching the testimony, they weren’t surprise that she didn’t call the cops. They weren’t, you know? And I think—

AMY GOODMAN: And she didn’t know what happened.

DANIELLE CADET: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: The phone went dead.

DANIELLE CADET: Exactly. The phone went dead, and she didn’t know what happened. And she also says that she thought he was close enough to his home that somebody would, particularly a family member, would come help him.

AMY GOODMAN: It was also the first time pictures were shown of Trayvon’s dead body.

DANIELLE CADET: Yes, yes, yes, and that was—that was major, I think, for multiple reasons. It was the first time you really got a sense of his body type. You saw how tall he was, how skinny he was. He was actually, surprisingly to me, personally, who’s—I’ve been on this case for over a year now—he was lankier than I expected him to be. And you—this is the first time where you really got to compare his size to George Zimmerman’s. You know, it was—

AMY GOODMAN: Most of the news organizations showed the covered body.

DANIELLE CADET: Exactly, yes, right. And so, for the most part, the public didn’t necessarily get to see exactly what his body type was. But the jury and the jurors really got to look and compare and really—and, you know, they use very large photos, and so the jury was really able to really get a sense of this 17-year-old and what he looked like. I think the defense has really made an effort to portray Trayvon as the aggressor. And so, I think having the photos really does help put that in perspective, whether you see him as the aggressor or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Danielle Cadet, we want to thank you for being with us.

DANIELLE CADET: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll certainly be back with you as we cover this trial, editor of Huffington Post Black Voices.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll look at the immigration bill passed by the Senate, then President Obama’s trip to Africa. Stay with us.

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