A witness in the Trayvon Martin case gives a clear account of the fight just before a fatal gunshot was fired: a black man with a hoodie on top of a white man
But another witness recalls it quite differently: a man with a white shirt on top of another.
The stark contradictions from witnesses are not uncommon and underscore the difficulties prosecutors will have in trying to portray the final moments of Trayvon's life to a jury. Whether George Zimmerman will go to prison for killing Trayvon will probably rest on troublesome witness accounts and the inherent unreliability of human memory, experts say.
"Perceptions are very individualistic," said Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor. "The fact that witnesses will see different things and testify to different things is one of the realities to our fact-finding system."
Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, is charged with the Feb. 26 fatal shooting of Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in a gated Sanford community. A neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman says he shot Trayvon in self-defense after being attacked.
If the case ever gets to trial, the verdict may depend on which lawyer can best persuade the jury into believing the witnesses who favor their side.
A number of witness statements reviewed by USA TODAY tell a confusing story of neighbors who saw and heard little of a confrontation that has captivated the nation.
Many who spoke with police and attorneys about the night of the shooting echo the statement of a person identified as witness one. "I looked out the window and I really couldn't see anything," the person told Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators on March 20.
Others share in the uncertainty in dozens of interviews included in discovery documents released by the state prosecutor's office. Most describe darkness and rain, muffled shouts and what could have been kids horsing around or two men fighting for their lives.
In one of the starkest contrasts, two people describe wholly different accounts of the altercation between Zimmerman and Trayvon.
"There was a black man with a black hoodie on top of either a white guy or … a Hispanic guy with a red sweat shirt on the ground yelling out 'help,'" a person identified as witness six told a Sanford police officer hours after the shooting.
A person identified as witness three offered investigators another account on March 19. "I just saw this white shirt on top," the person said. "I tried to stay away. I was scared."
The differing versions don't surprise Barbara Tversky, a Columbia University psychology professor who said people can easily mix up things when witnessing such a sudden event.
"At the time something happens, we are trying to make sense of it," she said. "I'm not focusing on someone's shirt color or height. I'm focusing on what's happening and trying to make sense of what's going on."
Later, people try to process what they saw — and that can lead to inaccuracies. "People are more influenced to what they think must have happened," Tversky said.
That may be the case for a person identified as witness number five, who injects opinion into a statement to Sanford police. "It just sounded like someone was struggling or in trouble or hurting or something," the person said. The person later added, "I feel that he [Zimmerman] intended for this kid to die because there was no struggling going on at that point [when gunshot was heard]."
Another witness is a friend of Trayvon Martin, who said she was on the phone with the teen when the fight ensued.
In her version, Trayvon, scared and out of breath from running, unsuccessfully tries to lose Zimmerman. "I hear this old man say, 'What are you doing around here?,'" the girl said in an interview with an assistant state attorney. "Then I could hear the grass."
It's unclear whether a jury will ever hear her story. Much of it is about what Trayvon said to her and that may be declared inadmissible hearsay, Gershman said.
Gershman, who listened to a majority of the witness recordings, said he doubts jurors will get a sense of who started the fight — a key point that experts believe the case rests upon.
"I don't think we're ever going to have a clear picture of what happened," he said.
Derek B. Brett, an Orlando attorney who represents one of the witnesses, agrees. Like the others, his client saw two shadows struggling, heard some sort of noise, and is unsure of how the confrontation started.
"The only true eye witness who is going to give testimony is George Zimmerman," he said.