WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Opening statements are expected Tuesday in the trial of a fired Florida police officer who is charged with the fatal 2015 shooting of a stranded black motorist.
Prosecutors are expected to tell the four-man, two-woman jury that former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja’s actions made 31-year-old Corey Jones confuse him for a robber and pull his legally possessed handgun, causing Raja to shoot him. Raja was working in plain clothes when he drove his unmarked white van the wrong way up a darkened Interstate 95 onramp. Prosecutors say an audiotape show Raja, 41, never identified himself as a police officer.
Raja’s attorneys are expected to argue he did identify himself and that he shot Jones in self-defense. Raja, who is of South Asian descent, could get a life sentence if convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder.
It is the first time in 26 years that a Florida police officer is standing trial for an on-duty killing and one of Raja’s defenses will be the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law. It says anyone with a legitimate fear of imminent danger can use lethal force. The law also says it is up to prosecutors to prove the person’s fear was lacking or unreasonable, but the shooter cannot be the aggressor.
Jones, a part-time drummer who also worked as a housing inspector, was returning home from a nightclub performance early on the morning of Oct. 18, 2015, when his SUV broke down on an off-ramp of Interstate 95. His drums, valued at $10,000, were in the back. Jones, the brother of former National Football League player C.J. Jones, had just purchased a .38-caliber handgun for protection and had a concealed weapons permit.
Raja spotted Jones’ SUV about 3:15 a.m. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap because he was investigating auto burglaries. His sergeant testified at a hearing that he told Raja to don a vest marked “police” if he confronted anyone, but the vest was found inside the unmarked van.
Raja drove up the off-ramp, blocking Jones’ SUV. He told Palm Beach County sheriff’s investigators that when Jones got out, he identified himself, but then fired because Jones pulled a gun. He said Jones ran down an embankment and pointed the gun again, so he fired more shots. Jones died at the scene.
Investigators have said that Raja didn’t know Jones was speaking to a tow truck dispatcher on a recorded line. Raja is never heard identifying himself.
Jones is heard first, saying, “Huh?” just before Raja yells, “You good?” Jones says he is. Raja twice replies, “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 it was then that Jones pulled his gun. Raja fired three shots. Ten seconds later, Raja fired three more shots.
Prosecutors say Raja saw Jones throw down his gun but kept firing, which is why he is charged with attempted murder. Investigators were unable to determine when the fatal shot was fired, but it struck Jones in the back.
Raja then used his personal cellphone to call 911 with the operator picking up 33 seconds after the last shot. Raja is recorded yelling orders to drop the gun; prosecutors say he was trying to mislead investigators into believing he hadn’t seen the gun thrown. Jones’ body was found 200 feet (60 meters) from the SUV and 125 feet (38 meters) from his unfired gun.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Raja, who was in his employee probation period after transferring there months earlier from a neighboring city. He was charged in 2016 and has been under house arrest.
The last Florida officer tried for an on-duty killing was Miami’s William Lozano. The Hispanic officer fatally shot a black motorcyclist who he said tried to hit him in 1989. A passenger died when the motorcycle crashed. The deaths resulted in three days of rioting.
Lozano was convicted of two manslaughter counts in a Miami trial later that year, but an appeals court dismissed the verdict, saying the case should have been moved because of racial tensions. Lozano was acquitted at a 1993 retrial in Orlando.
Raja’s trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
By TERRY SPENCER
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