SANFORD, Fla. -- The sound of a single gunshot punctured George Zimmerman's murder trial on Thursday -- a jarring reminder of what ended the cries for help on a rainy February night last year.
Jurors for the first time heard the shot that brought a nation’s focus to a teenager named Trayvon Martin and a town that had been known before mostly for an airport and the end of a railway.
They also heard screams. “Yelps,” in the words of the witness who made the 911 call that captured the sound of the shot that killed Martin.
Zimmerman has admitted shooting Martin, who was unarmed, but said he did so in self defense. The prosecution has sought to cast doubt on Zimmerman's claim that he was ever in danger.
Jenna Lauer, who lived close enough to the fight between Martin and Zimmerman that “it sounded like they were in our living room,” insisted on the stand she heard just one pleading voice from her townhouse.
She called the screams “life-threatening.”
“It sounded like they were desperate,” Lauer said. “Whoever it was really needed help.”
That testimony, gripping as it was in a riveting fourth day of a murder trial, did not give any insight into whether it was Martin or Zimmerman begging for assistance. So what Lauer heard may not change much in the outcome of these proceedings.
What the next witness saw, however, may carry a lot of weight.
Selma Mora, a neighbor who was making coffee when the altercation took place, testified she saw a man wearing clothes that matched the description of what Zimmerman was wearing on the night in question. That man, she said, was positioned on top in the 2-person struggle.
Mora went on to say that man got up after the confrontation and walked away, with one hand on his head and another on his waist.
Zimmerman, who has appeared mostly unmoved by even the most graphic of testimony, looked quickly to his defense team and back when Mora made that statement -- one of his most animated moments of the trial to this point.
Mora’s testimony is significant because if Zimmerman was indeed on top of Martin, Zimmerman's self-defense argument is harder to make. And although it’s possible Zimmerman's was the voice heard screaming for help, it’s less believable that a man on top of another would sound “desperate,” in the words of Lauer.
Mora’s account also makes it more difficult for the defense to credibly claim that Martin was using the pavement as a “deadly weapon” -- a claim Zimmerman attorney Don West used in his opening statement on Monday. Zimmerman’s taped account of the events to Sanford police suggested Martin was on top of him, saying “You’re going to die tonight.”
None of the witnesses so far claim to have heard anyone say those words.
All this adds to the most powerful quote recounted Thursday by Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel.
Although the defense tried for hours to impeach Jeantel's testimony, and made significant headway in undermining her credibility by forcing her to admit she lied under oath about her visit to the hospital after Martin’s death, she refused to stand down when pressed about hearing Martin say “Get off” in the waning seconds of their last phone conversation.
Defense attorney West pressed Jeantel for long periods on those words. But the 19-year old high school student was emphatic in recalling Martin say, “Get off.”
Those words, much like the testimony of the two witnesses Thursday, help chip away at the suggestion Martin was the aggressor the night of the shooting and that Zimmerman feared for his life. While Jeantel has been skewered on social media for everything from her appearance to her use of language to her stream of “Yes sir” and “No sir,” the constant barrage of withering questions from the defense may have left a jury consisting mostly of mothers with sympathy for the young witness.
Jeantel’s admission that she changed parts of her story did not help the prosecution, yet she never seemed to have a filter or any pause to concoct a layer of deceit. That might make her stubbornness about what she heard Martin say seem more reliable rather than less.
Could the mounting evidence push the defense to put Zimmerman on the stand? That answer remains no, according to attorney Mark O’Mara.
“Nothing has happened that has impacted that decision,” O’Mara told reporters after Thursday’s proceedings. The state of Florida’s self-defense laws are very strong, and make the prosecution’s job quite difficult even with the collection of testimony unraveled this week. “If I think they’ve gotten close,” O’Mara said, “I might put on a case (for Zimmerman taking the stand). We’re a long way off from that.”
- George Zimmerman