WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – A former South Florida police officer is headed to prison for the 2015 shooting death of a drummer stranded on the side of the road, whom he confronted in undercover clothing with no visible badge, triggering a fatal encounter between the two armed men.
Former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja, 41, sat stone-faced with his head hung low when the jury returned the verdict Thursday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. He was found guilty of manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder in the death of Corey Jones, a 31-year-old housing inspector and musician who played drums at a church headed by his grandfather, a local bishop.
Jones’ father Clinton spoke on the courthouse steps after the verdict was returned.
“It was a long process, but we endured,” he said. “I have some closure.”
He said when the verdict was read, he felt “peace.”
“The pressure just left me,” he said.
He downplayed the racial tensions surrounding the case. Jones and Raja were both dark-skinned, with Raja being of Pakistani descent and Jones being African-American.
“This was nothing about race,” Jones’ father said. “This was about justice. This was about the truth. And the truth caught up to [Raja].”
Raja came upon Jones in the early morning hours of Oct.18, 2015, after Jones’ car broke down on the side of a highway on the way back from a gig. The officer, who had worked for the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department since April 2015, was doing a burglary stakeout at the time.
According to prosecutors, Raja drove up the wrong way of the highway exit ramp, pulled up to Jones’ SUV in an unmarked white van and failed to make it clear that he was a police officer when he confronted the stranded musician. He was wearing street clothes and his badge was in his pocket, prosecutors said.
The probable cause affidavit stated: “Despite his experience, his extensive police training and the [instructions] of a superior officer to wear his tactical vest with police markings on it … Raja chose to approach Corey Jones’ vehicle in a tactically unsound, unsafe and grossly negligent manner.”
Jones was on the phone with roadside assistance when Raja approached. The initial interaction was recorded on the line.
“You good?” Raja asked.
“I’m good,” Jones said.
“Really?” Raja said.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Jones repeated.
Raja is then heard yelling for Jones to “get [his] fucking hands up” before Jones cries out: “Hold on!”
The recording, which also captured the subsequent gun shots, was played repeatedly in the course of the trial, prompting Jones’ brother C.J., a former Denver Broncos wide receiver, to writhe and swallow back tears.
At some point early in the roadside encounter, Jones by all accounts pulled out a pistol which he had purchased just days earlier. Raja opened fire six times, striking Jones with three bullets, one of which pierced Jones’ heart.
Jones never fired a shot. He fled or moved away from his vehicle as he was being fired upon. He dropped his pistol roughly 70 feet from his vehicle, court documents state. His body was located more than 190 feet away from his car.
Prosecutors throughout the trial drew attention to Raja’s perplexing statement during a call to 911 to report the shooting. Raja yelled out “drop the gun” despite the fact that Jones was nowhere near his weapon and was clearly incapacitated from the shot through the heart, prosecutors said.
During the 911 call, Raja gave his narrative of the moments before he opened fire: “I saw him come out with a handgun.”
In closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes — a controversial firebrand prosecutor who’s barking style contrasted with the defense team’s more subdued, technical approach — told jurors that Raja had no right to claim self-defense despite Jones being armed.
“[Raja] is the textbook definition of an initial aggressor,” Fernandes told the jury.
Fernandes went on to say: “He made the decision not to act like a law enforcement officer. That’s why we’re here.”
Raja’s defense attorney Richard Lubin maintained in his closing argument that Raja did only what was necessary to protect himself.
“What choice did Officer Raja have in this terrible tragedy but to fire the gun in self-defense?” Lubin asked.
Lubin told the jury that Raja yelled twice for Jones to drop the gun, but that Jones continued to carry it for several seconds as he moved away from Raja.
The trial was focused in part on whether Raja continued to fire after Jones dropped his weapon.
The long distance between Jones’ body and where the gun was found spawned a forensics debate in that vein, which stretched for two days.
Prosecutors pointed to the medical examiner’s conclusion that Jones would have been unable to run such a distance after having been shot in the heart. They claimed that Raja therefore must’ve continued to shoot despite Jones no longer having a weapon.
The first-degree attempted murder charge was based on the notion that regardless of when the actual fatal bullet was discharged, Raja fired at least a few bullets at the no-longer-armed man in a concerted attempt to kill him.
The defense fought back with expert testimony from a Winter Haven pathologist, who cited anecdotes in medical literature about people who were able to function physically for several seconds after being fatally shot in the heart.
“[The medical examiner] is not telling it like it is,” Lubin told the jury. “She is an outlier.”
The Associated Press reported that before the verdict was handed down, Raja had been on house arrest since 2016. The AP wrote that he is the first officer in Florida to be convicted for an on-duty fatal shooting in 30 years.
Raja was handcuffed and taken into custody once the verdict was read. He was fired by the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department within a month of the shooting.