SANFORD, Fla. - The second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman is taking twists and turns around the issue of race.
In testimony Thursday, Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Trayvon Martin's who was on the phone with him in the last moments of his life, said she thought his encounter with Zimmerman was racially charged.
Hours later, Trayvon's family, through their lawyer, said they don't believe race played any part in the shooting death of the black teen.
Trayvon's death and the speculation that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, profiled, followed and murdered him sparked racial controversy and protests around the country last year.
Zimmerman, 29, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer, says he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Trayvon, 17, minutes after calling police to report that he was following a suspicious person. Zimmerman, who could face life in prison if convicted, has maintained that race did not factor into his actions.
"To this family, race is not a part of this process," said Daryl Parks, an attorney for Trayvon's parents. "Anybody who tries to inject race into it is wrong."
In early demonstrations demanding that Zimmerman be arrested and charged, Trayvon's family appeared with Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and leaders of the NAACP.
Jeantel, 19, said race was an issue because Trayvon told her he was being followed by a white man.
The comment came on the second day of her testimony as she was cross-examined by defense attorney Don West, who suggested that she had not talked about race in some previous statements to police and attorneys, and in correspondence with Trayvon's family.
Under often contentious questioning, Jeantel said there were inconsistencies because some of the questions posed by state attorneys and police were more specific than those from Trayvon's mother and her attorney. She said when she was first interviewed, it was at Trayvon's mother's house. Sybrina Fulton's mother was crying and she didn't want to upset her further.
A trial observer, H. Alexander Duncan, 33, said people around him were making light of the testy exchanges, but he saw a serious undertone.
Jeantel "and Don West were frustrated with having to deal with each other," Duncan said. "It wasn't him personally attacking her."
Duncan said both were out of their element, Jeantel in an unfamiliar courtroom setting and West having to speak to a teenager from a different cultural background.
Jeantel scoffed at West's contention that Travyon had started the fight with Zimmerman and that Trayvon had lied in his conversation with her.
West said he believes state attorneys might have "walked her down a path" to get her to say Trayvon was saying "get off" to Zimmerman as they were fighting before he was shot. Jeantel, however, was adamant that she has consistently said Trayvon said he was being followed and that the young man was saying "get off" before the call ended.
Jeantel portrayed Zimmerman as the aggressor in the deadly confrontation that later sparked racial controversy and protests around the country.
A man was watching him," Jeantel said Wednesday. "He told me he was going to try to lose him."
Jeantel admitted during testimony Wednesday that she had lied twice. She said she told Trayvon's family she was 16 when she was 18. She also said she lied about going to a hospital instead of Trayvon's funeral because she didn't want to see his body.
Jeantel, who exchanged hundreds of calls and text messages with Trayvon during their friendship, said he called her as he was walking back from a 7-Eleven on the night of the Feb. 26, 2012, killing. During their conversation, Trayvon said a man, "creepy-a-- cracker," was staring at him and he wanted to get away, Jeantel said. On Thursday, she said the reference to cracker referred to "a pervert."
Later, the man began following Trayvon, so the teen ran to try to get away, Jeantel said.
Trayvon was out of breath when he told Jeantel he had lost the man, Jeantel said. Shortly afterward, Trayvon told Jeantel the man was back and behind him, she said.
"I told him you better run," Jeantel said, but within moments she heard two voices.
Jeantel recalled Trayvon saying, "Why are you following me?"
She continued, "Then I heard a hard-breathing man say, 'What are you doing around here?' "
Jeantel then heard a bump and heard Trayvon saying, "Get off! Get off!" she said. Seconds later, the phone call ended, and when Jeantel called back, no one answered.
Three days later, Jeantel said, she learned Trayvon was dead. "I had thought he was close by his daddy's house so someone would come help him," she said, visibly upset.
In the next few weeks, she was contacted by Trayvon's family and their attorney, who convinced her to talk about the conversation. Jeantel said she didn't think her role would be significant because she heard Zimmerman had been arrested.
On Wednesday, jurors, the judge and courtroom onlookers all leaned in closely through Jeantel's riveting testimony. At times, the court reporter and jurors struggled to hear her. One juror, E6, spoke up during Jeantel's testimony, saying she couldn't hear what the young woman was saying.
Her testimony came before another witness, Jennifer Lauer, testified that she called 911 after hearing scuffling outside her townhome, then "yelps" that turned to "Help!" and "Help me!" She could not identify who was speaking.
Lauer's 911 call, which recorded screams and the fatal gunshot, is a significant piece of evidence, Zimmerman's lawyers have said. When it was played in court Thursday, several jurors looked upset. One kept her hand in front of her mouth as others took notes.
Selma Mora, another neighbor, said a person straddling another person told her to call police. Minutes later, Zimmerman was on his feet after a gunshot.
On Friday, Assistant State Attorney Bernie De la Rionda said, he intends to argue that jurors should be told that Zimmerman and a former girlfriend took restraining orders out against each other and that Zimmerman was arrested once for battering a police officer.
Zimmerman attorney Mark O'Mara said that evidence should not be admitted and that the trial should focus on the minutes before the shooting.
Contributing: Gary Strauss in McLean, Va.