SANFORD, Fla. — Rachel Jeantel was the girl on the other end of the line.
She is the one who says she was talking to Trayvon Martin on the phone moments before the 17-year-old was shot to death. And that makes her a star — a key prosecution witness — in the sinuous court drama unwinding in this central Florida city near Orlando.
On Wednesday, she jolted a packed and staid courtroom, striding in wearing silver-studded high heels and a look of supreme confidence and sass. “Mr. Don,” she quipped at the defense attorney, Don West, who represents defendant George Zimmerman.
Jeantel, a sleepy eyed Miami high-schooler with long bangs, treated jurors to a gripping, but sometimes jumbled, narrative. She recounted how Martin told her a man was following him as he walked through the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a housing development where Zimmerman was a neighborhood-watch volunteer. “Creepy” was how Martin described him, Jeantel said. A “cracker.”
For a moment, she worried her friend was being followed by a rapist, she said. She told him to run, but he didn’t listen.
Jeantel’s testimony is crucial to the prosecution’s contention that Zimmerman pursued Martin, instigating a confrontation in February of 2012. Defense attorneys say Martin attacked Zimmerman and that their client shot the teenager in self defense. Prosecutors portray Zimmerman as a 28-year-old wannabe policeman who shot Martin simply because he wanted to.
As stars go, Jeantel, 19, who is set to start her senior year of high school, came with considerable baggage. She’s admitted to a string of lies in conversations with lawyers, Martin’s family members and prosecutors. She lied about her age at the time of Martin’s death (she was 18, not 16). And she’s fessed up to lying about her reasons for skipping his memorial — she had said she was in the hospital, but she wasn’t. The real reason, she said, is that she didn’t want to see Martin’s body.
On the witness stand, Jeantel mumbled one moment and snapped sharply at a defense attorney the next. When West asked her about her piqued reaction to not being called by investigators in the days after Martin’s death, she said: “Do you watch ‘The First 48?’ ” She went on to tell the attorney that she learned by watching the crime reality show that police call the person who had spoken on the phone with a victim shortly before his or her death. She did not contact police, she said. “I thought they were supposed to call you,” she said.
In her testimony, Jeantel repeated a racial epithet that she says Martin said to her on the phone. He called Zimmerman the n-word, she said. “It’s slang,” she said, explaining why her friend was using the term to describe someone who is not African American.
Jeantel acknowledged that she and Martin exchanged hundreds of texts, some of which may have given the impression that they were dating, but she said that Martin was dating a different girl.
As the cross-examination stretched late into the afternoon, Judge Debra Nelson asked the defense attorney how long he would need to finish his cross-examination. At least two hours, he said, giving a response that assured the judge would need to call a recess and resume testimony Thursday.
Jeantel sat up in her seat and called out: “What?”