WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A judge says she will decide within a month whether a former Florida police officer should stand trial for fatally shooting a stranded black motorist.
As a hearing concluded Tuesday, Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer told lawyers to submit written closing arguments within a week in the case of fired Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja. He’s accused of killing 31-year-old Corey Jones in October 2015.
A former police chief told the judge Tuesday that the shooting was “unjustified” and resulted from Raja’s “lazy and reckless” tactics as he approached the victim’s broken down SUV on a darkened highway off-ramp.
W.D. Libby, a former Punta Gorda, Florida, police chief, testified that Raja violated numerous protocols in October 2015 when in plainclothes he drove an unmarked van the wrong way up the off-ramp, exited in front of Corey Jones’ SUV and didn’t identify himself as a police officer. Libby said given the circumstances, Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, likely thought he was about to be robbed or carjacked and pulled his handgun. Raja told investigators he opened fire when Jones pointed his gun at him.
“If I was sitting there (like Jones), I would have had my gun out,” Libby told Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer. Libby, now a consultant, testified for prosecutors.
Raja’s attorneys are trying to persuade Feuer to dismiss manslaughter and attempted murder charges under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. They say Raja feared for his life when he opened fire on Jones, whose SUV stalled as he returned from his reggae band’s late-night concert.
The “stand your ground” law says people can use lethal force if they reasonably believe their life is threatened, but not if they created the situation. Raja, 40, who is of South Asian descent, is the first Palm Beach County law enforcement officer in decades to be prosecuted for an on-duty fatal shooting.
Raja is scheduled to stand trial in July if the charges aren’t dismissed and could get a life sentence.
The hearing was briefly interrupted late Tuesday when a female relative of Jones wailed, screamed, stood up and slammed her cellphone to the floor as a medical examiner discussed his autopsy. Other relatives quickly escorted the woman out.
Earlier, Palm Beach County sheriff’s Detective Kenny Smith testified Raja said he identified himself as a police officer and ordered Jones several times to drop his gun before he opened fire. That version of events differs significantly from what was captured by an audio recording the officer didn’t know existed.
A recording of Jones’ call to a tow truck dispatcher captured the shooting. In the recording, Raja is never heard identifying himself and opens fire right after yelling “show me your hands,” which has led prosecutors to speculate Raja never saw Jones’ gun.
Raja was part of a detail targeting auto burglars when he spotted Jones’ SUV. After parking facing Jones, Raja got out wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap. He’s never heard identifying himself on the recording of Jones talking to the tow truck dispatcher.
Sgt. Javier Garcia testified Tuesday he ordered Raja to wear a vest marked “Police” on both sides during the operation, in case he needed to interact with civilians, and to carry his radio. Both were found inside the van.
In the dispatch recording, Raja, a seven-year police officer who had joined Palm Beach Gardens six months earlier, yells “You good?” as he approaches. Jones says he is. Raja twice replies, “Really” with Jones replying “yeah” each time.
Suddenly, Raja shouts for Jones to raise his hands, using an expletive. Jones replies “Hold on!” and Raja repeats his demand. Raja then fires three shots in less than two seconds. Ten seconds pass before three more shots are heard a second apart, apparently Raja firing as Jones ran down an embankment. Raja told investigators Jones kept pointing his gun at him; prosecutors say Raja saw him throw it down but kept firing, which is why he is charged with attempted murder. Investigators have been unable to determine when the fatal shot was fired.
By TERRY SPENCER
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