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Live Coverage of the George Zimmerman Trial; Zimmerman's Friends on Stand as Defense Witnesses

Aired July 8, 2013 - 10:30   ET


MARK O'MARA, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Thank you, your honor. No further questions of this witness.


JOHN GUY, GUY: Good morning.

GERI RUSSO, WITNESS: Good morning.

GUY: Miss Russo, actually, you characterize yourself as a good friend of the defendant's, correct?

RUSSO: A good friend, a work friend.

GUY: But you and he would communicate outside of work, as well -- true?

RUSSO: Occasionally, yes.

GUY: You would text him?

RUSSO: Occasionally, yes.

GUY: He could text you back?

RUSSO: Occasionally, yes.

GUY: Tell the members of the jury if you would when was the first time you heard that tape that was just played for you. You said you heard it on the news -- my question is when?

RUSSO: When -- I would say soon after it was initially released to the media.

GUY: Do you recall what month that was?

RUSSO: I do not.

GUY: You understood at that time that George Zimmerman was under investigation for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

RUSSO: I don't know at that point that I heard the tape that he was under investigation, no.

GUY: He wasn't at work, was he? RUSSO: No.

GUY: Where did you think he was?

RUSSO: All I knew is that he was out of work.

GUY: You had no idea that he was being investigated on the murder of Trayvon Martin.

RUSSO: No, I didn't -- let me clarify, I knew about the incident that occurred. But as far as whether he was under any type of particular investigation I can't recall at the particular moment that I heard that on the news that there was an active investigation. If I said I knew that or I didn't know that, I'd be guessing.

GUY: Why did you think he wasn't at work?

RUSSO: What, initially? I thought he was out sick. Then I heard he was out on FMLA.

GUY: But you are telling this jury, you had no idea he was being investigated for that murder?

RUSSO: No, I'm not telling them that. I'm saying at the time I heard the 911 call on the news, I can't recall at this moment if I knew at that very moment that he was under investigation. If I said that I knew that, I'm just guessing. The assumption is that yes, he was, why else would it be on the news? But I would just be guessing.

GUY: All right. But you knew at the time you heard the tape that he had shot Trayvon Martin?


GUY: And you know now he's actually charged with the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin?

RUSSO: Yes, of course I do.

GUY: So when you heard the tape, you wanted to believe it was George Zimmerman's voice screaming for help?

RUSSO: No, when I heard the tape, my immediate reaction was, that's George screaming for help.

GUY: Did you want to believe it was Trayvon Martin?

RUSSO: There wasn't a matter of believing or wanting to believe who it was. I recognize it to be George's voice.

GUY: Of course, you never heard him yell before, right.

RUSSO: No, I have not?

GUY: Never heard him scream.


GUY: So you don't know what he sounds like when he screams, do you?

RUSSO: No but the voice I recognized was that of George Zimmerman's.

GUY: Did you ever hear Trayvon Martin's speak?

RUSSO: No, I have not.

GUY: Did you ever hear him yell?

RUSSO: No, I have not.

GUY: So you have no idea what Trayvon Martin sounds like when he yells, do you?

RUSSO: No, I do not.

GUY: Thank you, Judge.

NELSON: Any redirect?

O'MARA: Very, very brief, your honor.

You understand now that he was actually, Mr. Zimmerman was out of state just shortly after the shooting, correct?


BERNIE DE LA RIONDA, PROSECUTOR: Your honor, that calls for speculation.

NELSON: Well, it will be sustained unless she knows.

O'MARA: OK. Do you know -- well, I don't know how to ask you without asking so I won't. Did you know where Mr. Zimmerman was just after the shooting?

RUSSO: I didn't know his exact location. I knew he was not in the state of Florida.

O'MARA: You knew that he had to leave the state?


O'MARA: And that at first there was police investigation, correct?

RUSSO: I believe so, yes. There was a shooting.

O'MARA: And that he was not charged with a crime immediately was he?

GUY: Judge, I object to that again, unless she has that information. I would ask him to rephrase the question.

NELSON: Rephrase the question.

O'MARA: I'll rephrase it. Do you know when, how long it was before charges were filed against him?

RUSSO: I believe it was a couple of months.

O'MARA: OK so you know that he was not charged initially by the police, correct?

RUSSO: Correct.

O'MARA: And that he wasn't charged until the 4th Circuit came down from Jacksonville and charged him.

DE LA RIONDA: Judge. Again I object, leading.

NELSON: Sustained.

O'MARA: Do you know who charged him with second-degree murder?

RUSSO: I don't know exactly who charged him. But I know he was charged.

O'MARA: Do you know whether or not the 18th Judicial Circuit, this circuit charged him?

RUSSO: I believe there was a special prosecutor involved.

O'MARA: You were asked when the first time was. The question -- I think he asked you the question didn't you really want it to be George? Weren't you hopeful it was George Zimmerman screaming? And what was your answer?

RUSSO: I just immediately recognized that it's George's voice. There was no hoping it was one person or the other.

O'MARA: You understand that you are under oath as you sit here today? Correct?

RUSSO: Yes, I do.

O'MARA: Are you -- is your friendship with Mr. Zimmerman any hopes you may have to the outcome of this case, is that affecting your testimony here today?

RUSSO: Absolutely not.

O'MARA: If you -- if it was your opinion that it was not George Zimmerman's voice on the tape, would you testify to that as well?

RUSSO: Yes, I would.

O'MARA: Thank you, nothing further.

NELSON: Thank you. May Miss Russo be excused?

GUY: Yes, your honor.

NELSON: Thank you very much, you are excused. Please call your next witness.

O'MARA: I suggest it's time for a morning break before we pick one?

NELSON: Do you all need a break? Ladies and gentlemen.

O'MARA: I defer to them.

NELSON: They're good. Call your next witness, please.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "SITUATION ROOM": All right. So they're calling the next witness now. Let's see who it is. The testimony from Geri Russo reiterating what we've heard from several of the defense witnesses that it was the voice of George Zimmerman crying out for help on that 911 call.

We heard Trayvon Martin's mother, Trayvon Martin's brother insists that was the voice of Trayvon Martin. This is significant in as much as if, in fact, it was George Zimmerman who believed that he was in danger and he then shot and killed Trayvon Martin. That would obviously have an impact on this decision by the jury.

Let's see who this witness is and let's get some more of this live coverage here on CNN.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you swear (inaudible) that the testimony you give will be truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help you God.


NELSON: You may proceed.

O'MARA: Thank you.

Good morning, ma'am, how are you?

BENJAMIN: Good morning.

O'MARA: State your name, please.

BENJAMIN: Lee Ann Benjamin.

O'MARA: OK and are you married?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I am.

O'MARA: To whom?

BENJAMIN: John Donnelly.

O'MARA: OK. And do you know George Zimmerman?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I do.

O'MARA: And if you would, tell the jury how long you've known him.

BENJAMIN: I think I met George for the first time either at the end of 2002 or early in 2003.

O'MARA: And if you would briefly tell the jury the circumstances of that.

BENJAMIN: I own and operate a local real estate business and George was working for the local insurance company and I used to refer my customers over to him, so I got to know him that way.

O'MARA: OK would a characterization of it as a business friendship be appropriate?

BENJAMIN: Yes, it started out as a business relationship.

O'MARA: And was that -- have you maintained then a friendship sort of continuously since back in 2002?


O'MARA: And if you would just tell the jury sort of the high points of that. How it happened and how it progressed.

BENJAMIN: OK well --


O'MARA: And I'm sorry, do you know Shelly Zimmerman as well?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I do.

O'MARA: And when I have you talk to the jury about your relationship, is it one that grew with you and your husband and George Zimmerman and his wife?



So as you're going through this, are you talking about through the relationship that grew between the four of you?


O'MARA: OK if you --


BENJAMIN: Mostly, it started out though just with George.


BERNIE DE LA RIONDA, GUY: I want to object to using the surname. O'MARA: One thing that I didn't talk to you about beforehand, in a courtroom, we have to be very careful with the record. So we need to use full names. So even though he may be known to you more familiarly, if you would use his entire name George Zimmerman or Mr. Zimmerman, I would appreciate it as would the court.


O'MARA: OK, so if you would, using his name tell us.

BENJAMIN: Well, I first met George Zimmerman through the real estate business that I was doing and I would refer my customers to his -- the company he was working with and we got to know each other with the business relationship that way first.

And my offices are in the same building where his office was and we kept a refrigerator there and offered people to come for soda or something and Mr. Zimmerman did that on numerous occasions. Then he began asking me questions about business, how do you start a business? What's involved? What does it take to get going? Things like that.

So I took more interest in him then too because of that. He seemed to have a very keen interest in business and how to start one up.

O'MARA: OK. And then did that friendship progress? Are we now talking about the 2002, 2003, 2004 period time.

BENJAMIN: Yes, yes it did. And we did things more socially. We would go out to lunch or to dinner. And about that time a friend, a mutual friend was interested in getting into politics in the city of Lake Mary. And my husband and I were helping him on his campaign and Mr. Zimmerman was also interested in the political aspects and then we served on the campaign together.

O'MARA: So was that sort of another connection that you and your husband and George Zimmerman and Shelly Zimmerman had through your work on the campaign?


O'MARA: And if you could sort of move forward and get us closer towards your relationship over the last few years?

BENJAMIN: Well, the relationship for the last few years has been a little more intermittent. But when you have a good friend and you don't get to see them constantly, I think everyone has relationships like that, where you -- you don't talk for a while, but when you see each other it's like you pick up where you left off. And it was very comfortable.

My dad moved in with us and was ill and in the hospital a lot.

O'MARA: Did that take then a lot of your focus away from friendships and you focused on your dad?

BENJAMIN: Yes. O'MARA: OK. Did the friendship then sort of re-emerge or come back once this event happened with Mr. Zimmerman?

BENJAMIN: Actually, before.


BENJAMIN: My husband and I recognized that Mr. Zimmerman had a strong interest in business and with his age at the time we encouraged him to potentially go to college. We wanted him to consider that. Because we, at least I felt, there would be time later to do a business.

So when I learned that he was interested in school and going back to school, then that friendship picked up more again then.

O'MARA: OK it was that when he had gone to Seminole State College, he was in legal studies?


O'MARA: Did you encourage that sort of maneuver towards education?


And my background before real estate was in teaching. So education is a love that I have and I did a lot of volunteer work with respect to that and I realize that George was tutoring some young children and I encouraged that and I was very proud of him for that.

O'MARA: OK. And leading us up to sort of what happened, that brings us all here today. You knew what happened with Mr. Zimmerman being involved in a shooting?

BENJAMIN: I do now. But I didn't at the time. I did not hear about it or notice the news because my dad was having a very difficult time medically and I was spending a lot of time with him. So I was not paying attention a lot.

O'MARA: At some point along the way, between February 26th and today, though, you became aware of what Mr. Zimmerman is going through with his second degree murder charges?

BENJAMIN: Yes. He called me. And we spoke on the telephone for quite some time. I was not aware when he had called me that the event had happened. And I was not aware of any of the conditions or surroundings, so when we spoke on the phone, I spoke to him as my friend and we just talked.

O'MARA: OK. Did you recall approximately when that first conversation occurred?


O'MARA: And I'll premise it with this. We asked you a question -- it doesn't suggest it has to be answered.

BENJAMIN: Yes, I don't know.

O'MARA: If you don't know, that's OK, give us the year the season.


BLIZTER: All right. Let's take a quick break and resume our coverage in a minute. This is Lee Ann Benjamin, another friend, business associate of George Zimmerman testifying presumably about his character. But let's listen in. Take a quick break first, though. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: The defense attorney Mark O'Mara questioning Lee Ann Benjamin friend of George Zimmerman about that 911 tape. She has an opinion whose voice is crying out for help.


O'MARA: May I have a moment, your honor? .

NELSON: Yes, you may.



911 OPERATOR: 911, do you need police, fire, or medical?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe both. I'm not sure. There's just someone screaming outside.

911 OPERATOR: What's the address?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 1211 Twin Tree Blaine.

911 OPERATOR: Is this in the (inaudible) town in Sanford?


911 OPERATOR: OK. And is it a male or a female?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounds like a male.

911 OPERATOR: You don't know why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know why. I think they're yelling "help", but I don't know. Send someone, please.

911 OPERATOR: OK. Does he look hurt to you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't see him. I don't want to go out there. I don't know what's going on.

They're sending.

911 OPERATOR: So you think he's yelling "help"?


911 OPERATOR: All right. What is your --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's gunshots.

911 OPERATOR: You just --


O'MARA: Have you listened to that before today?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I have.

O'MARA: Any reason for me to play any more of it or go back over it?


O'MARA: Do you have an opinion as to whose voice that is in the backgrounds?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I do.

O'MARA: And whose voice is it?

BENJAMIN: George Zimmerman's voice.

O'MARA: How do you know that?

BENJAMIN: We've spent a lot or had occasion to get together many times. I know his voice but also when we were working on the political campaign, we were loud, waving signing and just kind of hooping it up and so I know what his voice sounds like when he gets excited or loud.

O'MARA: Let me have a moment, your honor.

NELSON: You may.

O'MARA: No further questions at this time, your honor.

NELSON: Thank you. Cross?

DE LA RIONDA: Good morning, ma'am.

BENJAMIN: Good morning.

DE LA RIONDA: You and your husband have contributed I believe $2,500 on behalf of the defendant, George Zimmerman, correct?

BENJAMIN: That is correct.

DE LA RIONDA: And then I think there was some additional money that was provided to him I think $500 or $400. Now you mentioned clothes, et cetera. Is that correct? BENJAMIN: I don't know about the amount my husband --

DE LA RIONDA: Deals with that?

BENJAMIN: -- deals with that.

DE LA RIONDA: And for the record, your husband's name is John Donnelly, is that correct?

BENJAMIN: Yes, that's correct.

DE LA RIONDA: But to your knowledge, you and your husband have contributed to the defense fund, correct?

BENJAMIN: That's correct.

DE LA RIONDA: Now, if I understand correctly, there was a period of time that when he was younger, the defendant, George Zimmerman, you were close to him in terms of business, then your dad was sick, so for a period of time, you were focusing obviously on your dad?

BENJAMIN: Correct.

DE LA RIONDA: And then after he was involved in this, then you got caught up again, I got that right?

BENJAMIN: No, before.

DE LA RIONDA: Right before or?

BENJAMIN: No, several months prior.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. So that would have been this happened in February, you are thinking December or --


DE LA RIONDA: December of 2011?


DE LA RIONDA: But for a period of years I guess you were keeping up with him then you got --

BENJAMIN: We were talking. We just didn't get together a lot.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. And you mentioned that 911 call?


DE LA RIONDA: The first time you heard it, it was on the news in terms of what had happened?

BENJAMIN: Yes, I believe so. But I didn't hear it right away.

DE LA RIONDA: You waited a few months, you think? This happened back in February of 2012, February 26th?

BENJAMIN: No, when I realized what had happened because of prior jury experience.


BENJAMIN: I tried to not watch or listen or read about it.

DE LA RIONDA: So you heard about the shooting, you heard about Mr. Zimmerman being charged. Then you listened to it on the radio or was there a recording played? How did you listen to it?

BENJAMIN: I think the first time I heard it, it was on TV.

DE LA RIONDA: Do you recall was it like this year, 2013 or was it last year, 2012?

BENJAMIN: You know, I don't really know.


I know you gave your deposition in May of this year, do you think it was before your deposition?

BENJAMIN: Oh, yes. .

DE LA RIONDA: So it was sometime before the deposition?


DE LA RIONDA: But it could have been this year some time?

BENJAMIN: It was probably this year some time, but I'm thinking I may have heard it late last year. I just can't remember.

DE LA RIONDA: Sure. That's fine. And the occasion for you hearing it, was it over the news or was it a separate recording played for you?

BENJAMIN: I don't really know. I'm thinking the situation was that the TV was on in the background and I was in the kitchen.

DE LA RIONDA: Sure. OK. Did you hear the news, was there a story about the George Zimmerman case and then they played the recording or do you recall the situation, the circumstance on you hearing it?

BENJAMIN: I don't recall.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. If you don't remember something as Mr. O'Mara said, it's perfectly all right to say you don't recall. We are trying to make sure the jury understands the circumstances.


BENJAMIN: It was --

DE LA RIONDA: It was on TV.

BENJAMIN: It was on TV.


BENJAMIN: Probably related to the news.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. So, in other words, and you were watching TV and id just happened or you heard it.


DE LA RIONDA: So my point I guess in terms of establishing the context in which you heard it, it wasn't just played out of the blue recording, there was some context or something to it, I'm assuming right --

BENJAMIN: Correct.

DE LA RIONDA: The George Zimmerman case, so you knew it was related to this case, right? Is that correct?

BENJAMIN: I believe so.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. All right. Then you heard it, what Mr. O'Mara just played for you?


DE LA RIONDA: Then you heard it. You said a second time?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. And the second time you heard it, was it again the same type situation?

BENJAMIN: Similar situation.

DE LA RIONDA: George Zimmerman the charges against him or whatever story about the case and then they played the 911 call?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. Both times when you heard it or have you heard it the third time, too?

BENJAMIN: At the deposition?

DE LA RIONDA: You heard it in the deposition?

BENJAMIN: And then today.

DE LA RIONDA: So and the deposition was played for you on a recording, correct?

BENJAMIN: Yes. DE LA RIONDA: But you had heard it prior to that and both times in the news.


DE LA RIONDA: And one time you were cooking or doing something else, the second time you were actually watching TV, it came up?

BENJAMIN: No, I think I was probably cooking.

DE LA RIONDA: So both times it was kind background noise?

BENJAMIN: Background.

DE LA RIONDA: They said this was the George Zimmerman case and then something else and then you heard the recording, is that accurate?



And I'm assuming, you've never heard Trayvon Martin's voice, correct? Or have you?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. And, obviously, you mentioned you had heard George Zimmerman prior to hearing the recording, correct?

BENJAMIN: Yes, a lot.

DE LA RIONDA: You had actually heard him before yelling like he did this time crying for help, that's his voice? Assuming that's his voice.

BENJAMIN: Very similar. When I heard it, it was related to political campaign locally.

DE LA RIONDA: And I guess there was cries for help in that campaign?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. So it was just yelling?

BENJAMIN: Whooping it up.

DE LA RIONDA: Whooping it up like hey, or hurray, or something?


DE LA RIONDA: Was it him just by himself yelling it up or was it the whole -- everybody in the campaign yelling it up?

BENJAMIN: It was all of it, but I also heard him, too, specifically.

DE LA RIONDA: Sure, but I'm assuming, everybody involved in the campaign was whooping it up, correct?


DE LA RIONDA: It was pretty loud at that time?

BENJAMIN: Yes, it was.

DE LA RIONDA: So you believe that you have now, based on that, able to extrapolate or say that this is definitely George Zimmerman's voice, correct?

BENJAMIN: Definitely.

DE LA RIONDA: And the recording that you heard that Mr. O'Mara played for you. This was continuous. In other words -- do you believe you hear him just continuously yelling for help, correct?


DE LA RIONDA: There is no break. In other words he just yells, help, help, help or whatever words?

BENJAMIN: There were some breaks in there that I heard.

DE LA RIONDA: There were.



BENJAMIN: Yes, while the 911 call was.

DE LA RIONDA: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm talking about the yells for help as opposed to the other people. Do you understand what I'm asking?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. I apologize. You are hearing the recording, the one we just heard. Do you hear yells for help?


DE LA RIONDA: Are they continuous yells for help?

BENJAMIN: Well, it's hard to tell because the person's voice who is making the call made it difficult.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. You are saying there is somebody else speaking?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. And you don't recognize that voice, obviously.

BENJAMIN: No, I do not.

DE LA RIONDA: But the yells for help are continuous other than the person breaking in, saying something?

BENJAMIN: No, it sounds like they are. It's very difficult for me to tell.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. So it's difficult for you to really hear the voice or --

BENJAMIN: No, I hear the voice.


BENJAMIN: I hear the voice clearly.


And since you contributed to his behalf, you want to believe it was George Zimmerman.

BENJAMIN: It is George Zimmerman.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. And that's your opinion?


DE LA RIONDA: That's all can you testify about?

BENJAMIN: Correct.

DE LA RIONDA: Did you have occasion to discuss with your husband, too, in terms of what his opinion was about whether that was the voice or not?

BENJAMIN: We tried not to discuss this.

DE LA RIONDA: Is that on purpose?

BENJAMIN: On purpose.

DE LA RIONDA: OK. I gather when he contributed to on behalf of the defendant, did he discuss that with you or did he do that on his own?

BENJAMIN: He did that on his own. I was not in the discussion.

DE LA RIONDA: You found out about it after?

BENJAMIN: After the fact, he said I hope that's OK with you. I said, of course.

DE LA RIONDA: And you approved?


DE LA RIONDA: OK. I didn't mean to imply he was doing something sneaky. Did you hear any other recordings in this case?

BENJAMIN: No, not to my recollection? DE LA RIONDA: OK. Did you hear any other recordings about his call, his being George Zimmerman's call to the police that day?

BENJAMIN: No, I don't recall hearing that.

DE LA RIONDA: Is there any reason why you would have heard the story, you don't know why?

BENJAMIN: No. Because I was trying not to pay attention.

DE LA RIONDA: On purpose.

BENJAMIN: On purpose. I was trying not. I know that the news was going to be covering it. And I just -- and plus my work schedule, I'm not always home anyway.