SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A woman who was on the phone with unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin moments before he was shot by a volunteer watchman rejected attempts by a lawyer in a Florida court to depict Martin as the aggressor in a struggle that ended in his death.
During an argumentative cross-examination on Thursday at the trial of George Zimmerman, a defense lawyer also suggested to the witness, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, that she had embellished her account of the conversation with Martin after news coverage portrayed the shooting as "a racial thing."
In earlier testimony in Seminole County criminal court on Wednesday, Jeantel said that shortly before Martin was fatally shot, he complained about a "creepy" man who seemed to be hunting him down as he walked back to the house where he was staying with his father.
Jeantel repeatedly denied embellishing her story and said she never watched the news.
Zimmerman, 29, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in the central Florida town of Sanford at the time of the February 26, 2012 shooting. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.
In court, Jeantel rejected defense attorney Don West's attempts to depict Martin as the aggressor in the fight that ended with his death, a portrayal that would support Zimmerman's claim that he fired in self defense.
West asked whether the noises Jeantel heard on the phone call could have been Martin smashing Zimmerman in the face or Martin getting ready "to sucker punch someone."
"You ain't get that from me," Jeantel said.
She refused to agree with West that Martin hid and approached Zimmerman. "Trayvon told me the man was behind him and kept being close by him," Jeantel said.
She suggested Martin would have ended the phone call first if he was preparing to attack Zimmerman.
The jurors paid close attention to Jeantel's testimony, taking notes and asking several times for her testimony to be repeated because they could not hear her soft-spoken, sometimes mumbled, words.
Jeantel has acknowledged she lied about her age and about her reason for skipping Martin's funeral, and that she signed her mother's name rather than her own in a letter she sent to Martin's mother. Jeantel said she was merely seeking anonymity and never imagined she would be called as a witness.
Jeantel, with whom Martin had been friends since elementary school in Miami, told the court in sometimes emotional testimony on Wednesday that Martin tried to run away and thought he had lost the stranger, until he reappeared.
She said she heard Martin ask the man, "Why are you following me?" Then she heard "a bump," and Martin saying, "Get off!, Get off!" before the line was cut.
Martin was a student at a Miami-area high school and a guest of one of the homeowners. He was returning after buying snacks at a convenience store when he was shot in the chest during a confrontation with Zimmerman.
The 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.
Prosecutors say Zimmerman profiled Martin, suspecting him of being up to no good, and killed him in an act of vigilante justice. The defense says Zimmerman was out doing his job as part of the neighborhood watch and simply trying to investigate something that he perceived as suspicious.
Zimmerman does not deny killing Martin. He says he did so only after he was attacked and Martin smashed his head repeatedly into a concrete sidewalk.
The prosecution faces a tall order to win a conviction for second-degree murder, and under Florida law must convince all six jurors that Zimmerman acted with "ill will" or "hatred" and "an indifference to human life."
Under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has since been copied by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.
Earlier this week jurors heard testimony from residents of Twin Lakes who heard or saw the struggle between Zimmerman and Martin on a dark and rainy night. Two female residents described how they saw what they believed was Zimmerman sitting on top of Martin and heard the 17-year-old cry for help. But under cross-examination both women admitted they could not be absolutely certain what they saw and heard.
(Writing by Jane Sutton and David Adams; Editing by Grant McCool)
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