WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Prosecutors and attorneys for a fired Florida police officer clashed Monday at a hearing over whether his fatal shooting of a stranded black motorist was justified, with the key argument centering on whether the officer properly identified himself before firing the lethal shots.
Former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja is arguing he should not stand trial for manslaughter and attempted murder charges because under the state's controversial "stand your ground" law he believed his life was in imminent danger when Corey Jones, 31, pulled his handgun when they came face-to-face on a dark Interstate 95 off ramp before dawn in October 2015.
Prosecutor Brian Fernandes told Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer and a packed courtroom that Raja, who was working in plain clothes, did not wear his police vest as ordered by his sergeant and that Raja is never heard on an audio recording of the encounter identifying himself as a police officer. He said that made Jones think he was defending himself from a robber. Jones, who was returning home from a late-night performance by his reggae band, had a concealed weapons permit and his family says he had just bought his gun to protect his drum equipment.
Fernandes said Raja also violated police protocol by driving his undercover van the wrong way up the off ramp and by aggressively walking toward Jones instead of taking cover behind his van if he thought his life was in danger.
"There was no way for Corey Jones to know that person was a law enforcement officer," Fernandes said. He said Raja cannot claim protection under the stand your ground statute because he was the instigator.
Defense attorney Richard Lubin said the recording does show Raja said something as he neared Jones, supporting Raja's statements to investigators that he identified himself. He said that he gave Jones several chances to drop his gun before he opened fire.
"Mr. Jones did not put his hands up," Lubin said, calling the shooting "tragic."
The stand your ground law says people can use lethal force if they have a reasonable belief their life is threatened, but they cannot have created the situation.
The courtroom was packed with supporters of both sides. Many of Jones' family and their supporters wore T-shirts emblazoned with his final recorded words, "hold on, hold on," and diagrams from Jones' autopsy showing where Raja's bullets hit him. Several of them gasped and wept audibly when the audio recording of the shooting was played.
On the other side, several members of Raja's police union sat with his family and supporters.
Judge Feuer will decide whether Raja, 40, will stand trial starting in July. He is of South Asian descent.
Jones, who also worked as a housing inspector, was talking to a tow truck dispatch center, which was recording the call. Raja pulled directly in from of him in a white, unmarked van and got out wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap with the logo of a heavy equipment manufacturer. He is never heard identifying himself on the tape, but a defense expert says he is heard saying something as he approached, causing Jones to reply "huh?" as he exited his SUV.
In the tow 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 put his hands up, 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 at Jones as he 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.
Raja then used his personal cellphone to call 911 with the operator picking up 33 seconds after the last shot was fired. 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 gun, which was unfired.
Palm Beach Gardens quickly fired Raja, who was still in his employee probation period. He was charged eight months later.