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Zimmerman testimony focuses on letter given to Trayvon Martin's mom

Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel pool via AP

Witness Rachel Jeantel, left, continues her testimony to defense attorney Don West on day 14 of George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., on June 27.

Editor’s note: This story contains racially charged language that may be offensive to some readers.

A friend who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he was killed gave the unarmed teen’s mother a letter outlining the events leading up to his death. In the letter she didn’t count race among the reasons why Martin may have been killed, despite later testifying that circumstances around the death were racially charged.

Rachel Jeantel, 19, took the witness stand Thursday for a second day in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial and answered questions about the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting of Martin, which Zimmerman is charged with. She also answered questions about a letter she says she wrote with a friend and gave to Martin’s mom several weeks after Martin’s death.

Martin, 17, was shot and killed while walking back to his dad’s girlfriend’s gated Sanford, Fla., community from a convenience store on a rainy evening. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges, claiming he was acting in self-defense.

Jeantel, of Miami, was the last person on the phone with Martin the night he was killed and says she heard the start of her friend’s deadly confrontation with Zimmerman. She’s considered a key witness for the prosecution.

On Thursday, a defense attorney questioned Jeantel about the letter she had given to Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton, and asked why the letter didn’t have any references to racially charged reasons for the killing — a motive the defense is trying to quash for why Zimmerman, who is of white and Hispanic descent, shot Martin, who is black.

A copy of the letter was read in court to jurors:

“I was on the phone when Trayvon decided to go to the corner store. It started to rain so he decided to walk through another complex because it was raining too hard. He started walking, then noticed someone was following him. Then he decided to find a shortcut ‘cause the man wouldn’t follow him. Then he said the man didn’t follow him again. Then he looked back and saw the man again. The man started getting closer, then Trayvon turned around and said, ‘Why are you following me?’ Then I heard him fall, then the phone hung up. I called back and text. No response. In my mind I thought it was just a fight. Then I found out this tragic story.”

See the letter that was presented in court (.pdf)

The letter was dated March 19, 2012, and was signed “Diamond Eugene” – which Jeantel told the court was her nickname.

Defense attorneys asked Jeantel to read the letter in court, but Jeantel said she was unable to read it because she can’t read cursive. When they probed her as to how she could have written the letter if she can’t read cursive, she told them she dictated the words to a friend, who wrote it for her. So defense attorneys read it aloud to the courtroom instead.

While the letter was read, Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, showed little emotion, staring straight ahead in the courtroom.

But defense attorney Don West was more curious about what the letter left out rather than what was in it. He asked Jeantel about an interview with the Martin family attorney in which race relations had come up.

“It was in the interview with Mr. [Benjamin] Crump that you said you thought this was a racial thing?” West asked.

“He had asked me if it was a racial thing,” Jeantel responded.

Jeantel said her opinion on motives around Martin’s killing was untainted by outside sources because she didn’t watch the news, and decided that based on “how the situation happened” she had come to the conclusion that the killing was racially motivated. West asked if the fact that Martin had told her on the phone that a “creepy ass cracker” was following him influenced her suspicions about it being racially motivated; Jeantel told him it did not, that the fact that Martin was “being followed” was more what made her think it was a racially charged event.

West also asked why Jeantel left out other details of the night from the letter. On Wednesday, Jeantel testified in the Sanford, Fla., courtroom that the last words she heard Martin say before the phone cut out were “Get off, get off.” West wanted to know why she didn’t mention those final words that she heard to his grieving mother as she explained what happened that night when she went to hand-deliver her letter.

“Ms. Fulton did not ask me,” Jeantel said.

Jeantel also admitted giving a different play-by-play of the phone call to Crump vs. what she testified Wednesday. She told Crump during an interview last year that while she was talking to Martin she heard a man on the phone ask, “What are you talking about?” But Wednesday, Jeantel had testified that on that night she heard a man who sounded to be out of breath say to Martin, "What are you doing around here?"

Martin then said, “Get off, get off,” before the phone cut off, Jeantel said Wednesday.

She said that Martin had said a man was following him in the minutes before his death, and that she had advised her friend to run away. After the phone line went dead, she called and texted Martin, but got no response.

Woman who placed 911 call testifies
On Wednesday afternoon, following Jeantel’s testimony, a representative from T-Mobile – the carrier of the phone Martin had the night he was killed – took the stand to answer questions about Martin’s phone records, focusing on calls prior to his death.

Jenna Lauer, a resident of Twin Lakes who was home with her husband watching TV when Martin was killed, was next.

Lauer is the woman who placed the call that captured screams in the moments before Martin's death.

That call was the subject of hearings over the last several weeks about whether to admit testimony of experts hired by the state who concluded the screaming voice was not Zimmerman's.

Last weekend, Judge Debra Nelson sided with the defense and ruled the expert testimony would not be heard.  But Nelson said the recording itself could be played, which it was in court on Thursday.

Lauer testified that she and her husband muted the TV on Feb. 26 after they heard sounds coming from the direction of the backyard – something that at first “just sounded like loud talking,” she said, but she said she couldn’t make out any words.

Lauer told the court she didn’t hear anyone say “You’re going to die tonight, mother***er” – a phrase Zimmerman told police that Martin uttered in the moments before Zimmerman drew his gun.

Later under cross-examination, she also said she didn’t hear anyone say “Why are you following me for?” a question Martin, according to Jeantel, had asked in his last moments.

Lauer later described the sounds as being people “scuffling around.”

“I keep saying scuffling because it sounded like sneakers on pavement and grass,” Lauer said.

As the noises continued and turned into “yelping,” Lauer called 911.

The yelps, plus screams for help, could be heard while she was on the phone with 911, but Lauer, who was a member of the Retreat at Twin Lakes’ homeowners’ association and had seen Zimmerman several times, couldn’t see who the screams were coming from. She said a gunshot went off while she was still on the phone with 911, and the screams stopped afterwards.

As for who was yelling for help, “it was one person,” Lauer said, and it was a man, although she couldn’t identify who it was. She said neither she nor her husband looked out the window during the incident, fearing they may get hurt.

Zimmerman, 29, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community at the time of the killing. He could face life in prison if he is convicted.

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