WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that it is a tragedy that former Florida police officer Nouman Raja fatally shot stranded motorist Corey Jones on a darkened highway off ramp almost four years ago.
But as the jury in Raja’s trial saw Wednesday, they disagree on just about everything else. Who was the aggressor? Did Jones point his legally possessed handgun at Raja and, if so, did the officer provoke him? Did Raja fire at Jones as he ran away? Was race an issue? Jones was black; Raja is of South Asian descent.
All are questions for the jury of four men and two women tasked with deciding whether Raja, 41, is guilty of manslaughter and attempted murder. If convicted, he could receive a life sentence. Jurors, however, could consider lesser charges — some punishable by a year in jail or less — or acquit him altogether.
Raja is the first Florida police officer in 26 years to be tried for an on-duty killing. Jones’ death is one of many high-profile killings of black men nationally by police officers under circumstances that critics found questionable. Most of those officers were cleared.
Prosecutor Brian Fernandes told jurors Raja escalated what should have been a routine interaction at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015, into a deadly confrontation. Raja, working in plain clothes, drove his unmarked van the wrong way up an off ramp, stopping feet from Jones’ broken-down SUV. The prosecutor said Raja never identified himself and acted so aggressively that Jones, 31, had to think he was about to be carjacked or killed. No wonder, he said, that Jones, a concealed weapons permit holder, grabbed his gun and ran.
“Corey Jones is a victim. … and that defendant right there made him a victim,” Fernandes said, pointing at Raja. He called Raja “a disgrace” to other police officers. “He chose to violate the most precious rights of a person. With great power comes great responsibility.”
Raja’s attorney, Richard Lubin, painted a different picture. He said that no matter what the officer did, he would not have fired had Jones not pointed a gun at him.
Raja “didn’t leave home that night trying to hurt anybody or be involved in a horrible turn of events that began when Corey Jones pulled a gun and pointed it at his head,” Lubin said.
Jones, he said, “couldn’t take that back.”
Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer, had been returning home from a nightclub performance when his vehicle stalled. He had purchased a .38-caliber handgun days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.
Raja was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap as part of an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones’ SUV. He thought it was empty, but Jones was inside, talking to a tow truck dispatcher on a recorded line. Raja’s supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest to identify himself if he approached a civilian. He did not. Fernandes also questioned why Raja didn’t pull out the badge he had in his pocket.
The recording shows Jones saying “Huh?” as his door opens. Raja yells, “You good?” Jones says he is. Raja replies twice, “Really?” with Jones replying “Yeah.”
Suddenly, Raja shouts at Jones to raise his hands, using an expletive. Jones replies “Hold on!” and Raja repeats his demand.
Prosecutors believe Jones pulled his gun and ran. Raja fired three shots and Jones ran down an embankment. Prosecutors say he threw his gun, which was found 125 feet (38 meters) from his body, but Raja fired three more times, 10 seconds after the first volley.
Jones was killed by a bullet through his heart. A medical examiner testified that Jones would have dropped feet from where the fatal shot struck him. He also had been shot once in each arm.
Prosecutors say Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, tried to deceive investigators. He told them in a video-recorded interview hours after the shooting he said “Police, can I help you?” as Jones jumped from the SUV. He told investigators Jones then leapt backward and pointed his gun, forcing him to fire. Raja said Jones ran but turned and again pointed his gun, forcing him to fire the second volley.
Lubin said Jones’ initial “Huh?” shows Raja identified himself — the tape picked up something unintelligible and faint.
Lubin said if Raja was trying to deceive investigators, he would have put on the vest and planted the gun in Jones’ hand before other officers reached the scene.
“People can make mistakes without it being a lie,” Lubin said.
By TERRY SPENCER
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