Despite a last-minute rush to the courthouse by the defense to keep a witness' damaging story out of public view, prosecutors on Monday released a recorded statement from George Zimmerman's cousin, who said he molested her for 10 years when they were both children, beginning when she was just 6 years old.
Dubbed "witness 9," the woman is 26, lives in Central Florida, and — like most other witnesses in the case — her name was not released. She called investigators just days after the shooting of Trayvon Martin to say that Zimmerman and his family were racists who disliked blacks. The evidence released Monday shows she also called the Seminole County state attorney about three weeks later with more serious allegations.
She told investigators Jim Post and Jim Rick that her family and Zimmerman's lived in different states, but inappropriate incidents of a sexual nature took place during annual visits until she was 16. Although just two years younger than Zimmerman, she said she was scared of him because he was bigger, older and stronger.
She described him as a charmer who made everyone laugh and love him. He was different, she said, when alone with her behind closed doors.
When she was 6 and her family was moving from Louisiana to Orlando, she said, she and her sister were sent to stay with the Zimmermans at their home in Virginia. The children hung out on sofas under blankets watching TV, and Zimmerman, she claims, used the opportunity to fondle her and penetrate her with his fingers, even though there were other people in the room.
"That's my earliest memory of him trying to do things. He would reach under the blankets," she said. "He was bigger and stronger and older. I was a kid. I didn't know any better."
Arguing that the allegation was irrelevant to the murder charge, Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, had two hearings before Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester in an effort to seal the witness statement. Lester twice ruled against him.
O'Mara filed a motion Monday morning to put a stop to the judge's ruling just minutes before the statement's scheduled release. Absent an order from the court to hold off, the Duval County state attorney, trying Zimmerman on a second-degree murder charge for the killing of Trayvon Martin, released the statement, along with audio of more than a hundred phone calls Zimmerman made from jail.
"Now that this statement is part of the public record, the defense will vigorously defend Mr. Zimmerman against the allegations," O'Mara wrote on his website. "In the next several weeks, there will be reciprocal discovery filed regarding Witness #9's statement."
The judge said in his ruling that nothing in Florida's public-records law allows for such information to be kept secret. By law, evidence the prosecution turns over to the defense — called "discovery" — is public record. There are exceptions for things such as telecommunications records and confessions.
Lawyers for The Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and other media argued for the release of the statement and about 150 of Zimmerman's recorded jailhouse calls. At a hearing held last month, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda said he may call "witness 9" as a rebuttal witness at trial.
"She certainly would be a rebuttal witness very similar to that in the Sandusky trial, showing that he has a history of violence and manipulation," the attorney for the slain teen's family, Benjamin Crump, said in reference to the child molestation case involving former Pennsylvania State University coach Jerry Sandusky. "Zimmerman's mentality is very relevant to this trial."
Crump and his team have known about the woman from the early stages of the case because she approached them after calling police and prosecutors. Orlando attorney Natalie Jackson, who also represents Trayvon's family, spoke to witness 9 on several occasions, but declined to discuss what she said.
Reached earlier this month by the Herald, "witness 9" declined to be interviewed.
Erin Russell, a Chicago lawyer who has been blogging about the case regularly, said the woman's testimony is so damaging to Zimmerman that prosecutors are probably hoping that Zimmerman is so worried about her that it will keep him from testifying at his trial. In a self-defense case, his testimony would be vital — and witness 9 could then be called to challenge his testimony.
"The minute he says he is a person of good character, that opens the door to, 'Really?'" Russell said. "They're trying to pressure him off the stand, and to take a deal."
In her statement, witness 9 said she kept the allegations secret for years, because everyone in her family adores Zimmerman.
"He made everyone love him, made everyone laugh and be happy around him," she said, adding that to her father, Zimmerman was like the son he never had.
But every time the families visited, Zimmerman would grope her behind curtains and touch her inappropriately, she said. Once, when she was about 12, he allegedly made her rub his penis.
She said the last incident occurred when she was 16, and the Zimmermans had recently moved to Central Florida, closer to where her family lives. She said he lay down next to her with an erection and began kissing her and rubbing her chest, but she got up and ran out. He chased her as far as the front door but no further, she said.
"I wanted it to just stop," she said. "I didn't want to ever have to tell anyone."
Experts said children who act out sexually with other kids have often been exposed to domestic violence and pornography. Kids as young as 8 — the age the witness said Zimmerman was when he first touched her inappropriately — are generally not considered sex offenders, and would be referred to get therapeutic help.
"If a child was coerced or forced or intimidated or manipulated by an older child, in that sense, they are being victimized," said Dr. Jill Levenson, a Lynn University expert in sex abuse. "Eight is pretty young to be initiating sexual activity. You're talking about more than, 'Can I see it?' So the questions become: Where did the 8-year-old learn that, and does that 8-year-old need some help?"
She stressed that she has no knowledge of the case and was speaking in general terms.
Former Miami-Dade prosecutor Trudy Novicki, who now runs Kristi House, a center for abuse victims, said experts find that people who are sexually abused by another child are no less traumatized than people who are abused by adults.
To determine whether something would be considered sexual abuse, law enforcement would consider not just the offender's age, but the age difference between the two kids, she said.
"As the relationship is ongoing, then you're talking about a teenage boy and a 12-year-old girl," she said. "That's getting to be the crossing-the-line area. I'm wondering what that kid has become all these years. That's a pretty odd kid."
The experts agreed that children in such situations often don't tell anyone about it.
Witness 9 said she once tried telling her family, but the vague words she used to explain it apparently went over everybody's head. In 2005, when she was 20, she told her sister, and her sister told their parents.
Her parents had a meeting with Zimmerman at a restaurant. "He sat down at the end of the booth, said, 'I'm sorry,' and got up and walked out," witness 9 said. After that, Zimmerman was never invited to joint family functions.
She never went to the police, she said, because her mother told her that cases like hers become "he said/she said," and get dropped. Zimmerman's parents "pushed it under the rug and pretended it never happened," she said.
Why then, investigators asked, was she coming forward now?
"It's the first time in my life I'm not afraid of him," she said. "I know nothing can get to me. He can't get to me. I won't go to Target and see him there anymore."