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Florida officer’s convictions upheld in fatal shooting

In this April 25, 2019 file photo, Nouman Raja listens to Chief Assistant State Attorney Adrienne Ellis during his sentencing hearing in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Lannis Waters, The Palm Beach Post)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a police officer convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder for the fatal shooting of a Black motorist whose car had broken down on an interstate off-ramp.

In a two-paragraph statement, the court said it would not consider the appeal filed by fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja, who is serving a 25-year sentence for the 2015 killing of 31-year-old Corey Jones.

Raja, now 44, was the first Florida law enforcement agent in nearly 30 years to be convicted and sentenced for an on-duty killing — and one of only a few officers nationwide.

The decision, signed by five of the court's seven justices and filed Friday, lets stand an appeals court decision that said a defendant can be convicted of both manslaughter and attempted murder in the shooting of a single person.

Prosecutors declined comment Tuesday. Raja's lead attorney, Steven Malone, and Brown's family did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in April that Raja’s 2019 convictions were for distinct crimes, dismissing his lawyers' arguments that the convictions were contradictory and constituted double jeopardy. First, the judges focused on Raja firing two volleys of shots separated by about 10 seconds, the last as Jones ran away.

They agreed with prosecutors, who argued at trial that while they could not prove in which volley the fatal shot was fired, the second volley was a premeditated attempt to kill Jones and qualified as attempted murder.

Second, the judges ruled that manslaughter — an unlawful, intentional killing without premeditation — and attempted murder are not versions of the same charge. Manslaughter requires a death and attempted murder does not, they ruled.

Prosecutors contended Raja escalated what should have been a routine interaction into a deadly confrontation with Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer.

Raja, of Asian descent, was in plain clothes for a Palm Beach Gardens auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones’ SUV at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015.

Jones was headed home from a nightclub performance by his reggae band when his vehicle stalled on a dark Interstate 95 off-ramp. He had a concealed-weapons permit and carried a handgun, purchased days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.

Raja, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, drove an unmarked van the wrong way up an off-ramp within feet of the SUV.

Prosecutors said Raja never identified himself as an officer and acted so aggressively that Jones must have thought he was about to be carjacked or killed. Raja’s supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest if he approached a civilian. He didn’t, nor did he pull his badge.

What police didn’t know at first was that Jones had been talking to a tow-truck dispatcher on a recorded line. That recording shows Jones saying “Huh?” as his door opens. Raja yells, “You good?” Jones says he is. Raja replies twice in an aggressive tone, “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 tried to run away. Raja fired three shots; Jones ran down an embankment. Prosecutors said he threw his gun, but Raja fired three more times, 10 seconds after the first volley. One of the bullets pierced the man’s heart. He was also hit in both arms.

Prosecutors said Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, sought to deceive investigators. He claimed he said “Police, can I help you?” as Jones jumped from the SUV. He also told them Jones 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.

But Jones’ body was found 200 feet (60 meters) from the SUV and 125 feet (38 meters) from his unfired gun. Prosecutors contended he had thrown it away well before Raja fired his second volley.