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Trayvon Martin was followed by 'creepy' man, witness tells murder trial

George Zimmerman seated in the courtroom for his second-degree murder trial for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Seminole circui
George Zimmerman seated in the courtroom for his second-degree murder trial for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Seminole circui

By Tom Brown and Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Shortly before he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin complained about a "creepy" man who seemed to be hunting him down, a key witness testified at George Zimmerman's murder trial on Wednesday.

Rachel Jeantel, 19, whose identity had been a closely guarded secret until her appearance in court, said she was on the phone with Martin for several minutes while he tried to evade Zimmerman.

"Get off!, Get off!," were Martin's last words, before the line went dead, Jeantel testified.

Jeantel said Martin, 17, "kept complaining that the man was looking at him," as he walked back to the house where he was staying with his father in the central Florida town of Sanford.

Zimmerman, 29, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford at the time of the February 26, 2012, killing. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.

Martin was a student at a Miami-area high school and a guest of one of the homeowners. He was walking back to the house after buying snacks at a nearby convenience store when he was shot in the chest during a confrontation with Zimmerman.

Martin family lawyer Ben Crump has asserted that Jeantel's testimony would help undermine Zimmerman's claim that he acted in self-defense.

In opening statements, prosecutor John Guy told the jury that Martin's phone went dead two minutes after Zimmerman hung up with police to report a suspicious person, suggesting that it was Zimmerman who crept up on Martin and surprised him.

Jeantel, with whom Martin had been friends since elementary school in Miami, told the court in sometimes emotional testimony that Martin tried to run away and thought he had lost the stranger, until he reappeared. "He told me the man looked like 'a creepy ass cracker,'" Jeantel said, using a pejorative term for Southern whites.

She heard Martin ask the man, "Why are you following me?" before the voice of a hard-breathing man replied, "What are you doing around here?"

Next she heard "a bump, the sound of grass" and Martin saying, "Get off!, Get off!" before the line was cut.

Under cross-examination, which will continue on Thursday, the defense sought to poke holes in Jeantel's testimony, noting that she lied about her reasons for not attending a wake for Martin after his death. Jeantel originally told the Martin family that she missed the wake because she was in the hospital, which she admitted was a lie.

"I didn't want to see the body," she told the court, wiping away tears at one point.

Feisty at times, Jeantel was asked by a defense lawyer why she didn't call police to tell her story and waited almost a month before speaking to Martin's family.

"I thought they supposed to call you," she said.

"Do you watch First 48?" Jeantel added, referring to a homicide investigation cable TV show. Friends also told her that the man who shot Martin had been caught. "I thought case closed," said Jeantel, who is a high school senior.

The racially charged case triggered civil rights protests and debates about the treatment of black Americans in the U.S. justice system, since police did not arrest Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, for 44 days.

Earlier on Wednesday, jurors listened to telephone calls that Zimmerman made to police in the months before he killed Martin.

Defense attorneys objected to use of the tapes in the trial, describing the five phone calls made between August 2011 and February 2012 as "irrelevant" and contending that they would tell jurors nothing about Zimmerman's thinking on the night he shot Martin.

Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson allowed the calls to be entered as evidence on Wednesday.

Prosecutors have said the calls, in which Zimmerman reported what he described as suspicious activity by black men, demonstrated "profiling" and were key to understanding the defendant's state of mind on February 26, 2012, when he called police to report Martin, minutes before shooting him in the chest at point-blank range.

To win a conviction for second-degree murder, the prosecution must convince jurors that Zimmerman acted with "ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent," and "an indifference to human life," according to Florida jury instructions.

"It's not a whodunit. It is what was Zimmerman's state of mind before he did it, and did he act in justifiable self-defense," said David Weinstein, a Miami lawyer and former prosecutor.

In the Zimmerman phone calls, he can be heard reporting what he described as suspicious behavior by various black men, using words or phrases similar to those he used to report Martin to the police.

"They typically run away quickly," he said in one call, referring to two men whom he said matched the description of suspects in a recent neighborhood burglary.

(Editor's note: Please be advised that paragraph 9 contains language that may be offensive to some readers)

(Editing by Bernard Orr, Toni Reinhold and Stacey Joyce)

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