The fight between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin began with two people huffing and puffing in the dark, and then a brief exchange of bitter words.
It wasn't long before the two were wrestling on the ground, and one of them let out such gut-wrenching howls that several people in the neighborhood thought they might have come from dogs. Witnesses said the tussle grew louder as it made its way up a dark pathway, past patios, from the concrete back on to grass. From there, witness accounts diverge.
"The one guy was throwing blows MMA-style," a witness dubbed W6 told Sanford police, later explaining his reference to mixed martial arts. "The one getting beat up, I'm guessing he was yelling out help, because he didn't want it to come to that point, and then it came to that point where he was on the concrete. I don't know if you ever got hit on concrete, it hurts."
His recorded interview with Sanford police was just two minutes long.
But like several of the nearly two dozen witnesses interviewed by four different law enforcement agencies, Witness Six was hampered by darkness and, the evidence suggests, influenced by news. A review of the testimony of witnesses to the Feb. 26 killing shows several of them modified their accounts or grew skeptical of their own recall. Several said they reshaped their stories because of what they learned on TV.
In addition, some people heard a second shot that was never fired and saw shirts nobody wore. Together, the testimony they offer is contradictory, possibly of little evidentiary value, and underscores the unreliability of witness testimony in criminal cases.
"Memory is not a videotape that you record and rewind," said Karen Newirth, a witness identification litigation fellow at the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to get innocent people off Death Row. "You pick up pieces along the way, and then fill in the blanks with what makes sense."
Based on the descriptions he offered, witness No. 6 — most of the witnesses in the case are identified only by number on prosecution records made public last week — saw Trayvon Martin on top of Zimmerman, punching him. But when he was interviewed three weeks later by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a local prosecutor, No. 6 said maybe the man on top wasn't throwing any punches, and perhaps was just pinning the guy down until the police came. Maybe it wasn't the guy on the bottom calling for help after all. "That's just an assumption," he said. "I can't tell who was yelling."
One witness, No. 2, told Sanford police she saw two people running, and later, when prompted, she clarified that the space between them was about 10 feet. She saw a "fistfight" — "fists" — she stressed. A week later, she told the same detective that she "more heard it than saw it," and did not have her contact lenses on.
"It was a glance, running," she told Sanford Detective Chris Serino. "I kinda more heard it than saw it. I heard it."
When she met with FDLE investigators, she said she "saw something out there," perhaps just one person whose feet she heard running.
One witness, a 13-year-old boy, told investigators he saw a man in a red shirt crying for help, but told reporters he could not tell what clothes the injured person wore. Zimmerman wore a reddish-orange jacket.
Another witness, No. 12, said she wasn't sure who was on top of whom. But when she had time to think about it, she decided it was definitely Zimmerman on top, because she had seen him on TV and he was larger.
Prosecutor Bernardo de la Rionda asked her if by larger, she meant "broader." "Yes," she said.
Zimmerman was much shorter than Martin, but wore a size 38 pants and was consistently described by most of the witnesses as the larger of the two.
Newirth, of the Innocence Project, said witness accounts are affected by stress and the presence of a weapon, and memories can be influenced by everything from leading questions to media coverage and other witnesses. The phenomenon is known as "memory contamination."
"I think in a case like this, there's contamination coming from all over the place," she said, stressing that the Innocence Project has no stand on the case and has not reviewed the evidence.
Newirth said studies show people's memories change as they learn more information about the incident they saw, making it critical to get their full accounts early and in their own words.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, said the witness testimony seemed to change, and sometimes appeared to be swayed by the prosecutor's probing.
At least one witness said she was basing her testimony on a 2005 picture of Zimmerman, when he weighed significantly more than he did at the time of the shooting.
"It's a good thing they have to prove this case," O'Mara said of the state attorney.
O'Mara said a trove of other evidence has yet to be turned over to him, including forensics and FBI reports.
Other evidence has been seen by him — but not by the media — because both sides are trying to have some materials sealed by the court.
A hearing has been scheduled for Friday in which the judge will decide whether to seal the confessions and other materials such as the witness names, cellphone records and photos.