WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Corey Jones’s family sang the gospel song “Victory is Mine” as they walked out of a Florida courthouse, celebrating after a judge handed a 25-year sentence to a former police officer for killing the stranded black motorist in 2015.
Fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja on Thursday became 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.
Raja, 41, had told investigators he fired after Jones pulled a gun on him, but an audiotape of their encounter led prosecutors and jurors to believe Raja instigated their altercation. And last month a jury convicted Raja of manslaughter and attempted murder in the death of the 31-year-old musician who was gunned down after his SUV stalled on the road home from a nightclub performance.
“We knew what the truth was and we stood by that,” his father, Clinton Jones Sr., told reporters after Thursday’s sentencing. He said he never doubted Raja was the aggressor. “Because of the son we had raised and the type of character he had, we knew … it wasn’t our Corey.”
The families of both Raja and Jones had packed Circuit Judge Joseph Marx’s courtroom, but there was hushed silence as Marx pronounced sentence. He could have given Raja a life term, a sentence prosecutors sought.
“This has been a heartbreaking case,” Marx said. “I think it has had a profound effect on every single person who sat through this trial.”
Raja’s wife, Karine, had sought leniency so her husband could be a father to their two young children. She said the media and others had unfairly portrayed him as “a monster, the angel of death.” Raja, in blue jail jumpsuit, looked down often as she spoke.
“The wrong person was chosen to be a sacrificial lamb,” she said. “Raja is the man you wanted serving and protecting you.” His attorneys vow to appeal.
Prosecutors contended Raja escalated a seemingly routine interaction into a deadly confrontation with Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer. Raja’s attorneys argued his actions were in self-defence both for a police officer and under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
Raja, of Asian descent, was in plain clothes for an 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 highway 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 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, “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. 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. Jones was also hit in both arms.
Prosecutors said Raja, not knowing of the audio 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.
Prosecutors charged Raja with manslaughter, saying his actions created the confrontation and showed “culpable negligence.” They also charged him with attempted murder, saying no matter which of Raja’s six shots killed Jones, the second volley was a conscious effort to kill the fleeing man.
The last Florida officer sentenced for an on-duty killing was Miami’s William Lozano in 1989. The Hispanic officer fatally shot a black motorcyclist who he said tried to hit him. A passenger died when the motorcycle crashed. Three days of rioting followed.
Convicted of two manslaughter counts in a Miami trial and sentenced to seven years, Lozano never served time. State appellate court justices dismissed the verdict, saying the case should have been moved from Miami because of racial tensions. Lozano was acquitted at a 1993 retrial in Orlando.
Terry Spencer, The Associated Press