By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida police officer was ordered Thursday to spend 25 years in prison for the fatal on-duty shooting of a black musician whose SUV had broken down after a late-night concert.
Former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja was sentenced by Circuit Judge Joseph Marx as family and friends of the 31-year-old victim, Corey Jones, looked on in a courtroom jammed with supporters on both sides. The 41-year-old defendant, shackled and clad in a blue jumpsuit, was the first Florida officer in nearly 30 years to be convicted and sentenced for an on-duty killing — and one of a few nationwide.
Raja was convicted last month of manslaughter and attempted murder in Jones’ death. Marx on Thursday imposed a sentence of 25 years on each count, to be served concurrently.
Prosecutors had said Raja had escalated what should have been a routine interaction into a deadly confrontation in 2015 when he encountered Corey, a housing inspector and part-time drummer whose SUV had stalled on a dark highway ramp.
Raja had faced a possible sentencing range from 25 years to life in prison, and both Prosecutor Adrienne Ellis and the father of the victim had urged the judge to impose the maximum.
Previously, Marx has rejected motions by Raja’s attorneys to throw out the verdicts. They argued that the evidence didn’t support his conviction and that Marx should have instructed jurors to consider whether Raja’s use of force was justified under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. They plan to appeal.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Clinton Jones Sr. told the judge he still has his son’s number programmed into his cell because he can’t stand the finality of deleting it. He said he wanted Raja to get a life sentence, not out of hatred but because of the pain he had caused the Jones family.
“It was painful for us to go through this because I knew the kind of son we had raised,” Jones said.
Raja, of Asian descent, was in plain clothes as part of an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones’ SUV at 3:15 a.m. Oct. 18, 2015. Jones was returning home from a nightclub performance by his reggae band when his vehicle stalled. 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 and stopped a few feet from the broken-down vehicle.
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. Prosecutors also questioned why Raja didn’t pull his badge from his pocket.
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 get 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. Jones was killed by a bullet through his heart.
Prosecutors said Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, tried 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 that although they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of Raja’s six shots killed Jones, the second volley was a conscious effort to kill him as he fled.
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, setting off three days of rioting.
Lozano was convicted of two manslaughter counts in a Miami trial and sentenced to seven years, but he never served it. 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.