WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A fired Florida police officer was found guilty of manslaughter and attempted murder Thursday for fatally shooting a stranded black motorist, becoming the first officer in the state to be convicted of an on-duty shooting in 30 years.
Nouman Raja, 41, now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, and could spend his life in prison for the death of Corey Jones, 31.
The four-man, two-woman jury had deliberated for about four hours. Raja did not react as the verdict was read. About 25 relatives and supporters of Jones looked on, some weeping quietly. One said “the sweetest sound was the click of those handcuffs” after Raja was led from the courtroom.
Then they held a prayer circle outside the courtroom, shouting praise to God and Jesus for the verdict as many broke down in sobs. A housing inspector and part-time drummer, Jones came from a family of Christian ministers and was scheduled to perform at church the morning he was killed.
“Corey has been here -- his soul is not here but he is definitely here in our hearts,” said C.J. Jones, the victim’s brother and a former National Football League player, primarily with the Cleveland Browns. “He walked us through this.”
Raja’s attorneys left without comment. His wife spoke an obscenity when asked for comment as she left the courtroom with her family.
Prosecutors said Raja, one of very few police officers across the nation to be convicted of an on-duty shooting, escalated what should have been a routine interaction into a deadly confrontation.
Prosecutors charged Raja with manslaughter because they believed his actions created the confrontation and showed “culpable negligence,” meaning a “reckless disregard” or “conscious indifference” for Jones’ life. They also charged him with attempted first-degree murder because they believed that while they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of the six shots killed him, the second volley was a conscious effort to kill Jones as he ran away.
Raja, who is of Asian descent, was working on an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones’ SUV at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015. Jones had been returning home from a nightclub performance when his vehicle stalled. He had a concealed weapons permit and carried a .38-caliber handgun he bought days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.
Wearing plain clothes, Raja drove an unmarked van the wrong way up an off ramp and stopped just a few feet from the broken-down vehicle.
The prosecutor 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 said he first thought the SUV was empty, but then saw Jones inside. Raja’s supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest to identify himself if he approached a civilian. He did not. Prosecutors also questioned why Raja didn’t pull out the badge he had in 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 and Jones ran down an embankment. Prosecutors said he threw his gun, which was found 125 feet (38 meters) from his body, but Raja fired three more times, 10 seconds after the first volley, and Jones was killed by a bullet through his heart.
A medical examiner testified that Jones would have dropped feet from where the fatal shot struck him. He also had been shot once in each arm.
C.J. Jones said his brother “was a good person” who would not have confronted Raja.
“If that dude would have said he was a police officer right off the bat, this would have never happened,” he said.
Raja’s attorneys said Jones’ initial “Huh?” shows the officer did identify himself. The tape picked up something unintelligible and faint.
But prosecutors said Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, tried to deceive investigators. He told them in a video-recorded interview hours after the shooting he said “Police, can I help you?” as Jones jumped from the SUV. He told investigators Jones then 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.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Raja shortly after the shooting. He had been under house arrest since he was charged in 2016.
Prosecutor Brian Fernandes said he wasn’t sure what the verdict would be.
“You never really can go down the road of what is going through the jurors’ minds,” he said. He said prosecutors cannot discuss specifics of the case until after sentencing, which Judge Joseph Marx scheduled for April 26.
Raja’s attorneys had tried unsuccessfully to get a previous judge to dismiss the charges by invoking Florida’s “stand your ground” law, but it ultimately played little part in the trial. The law was mentioned briefly during closing arguments, with the jury told Raja had no duty to retreat if he felt his life was threatened.
The last Florida officer tried 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 also died when the motorcycle crashed, setting off three days of rioting.
Lozano was convicted of two manslaughter counts in a Miami trial, but an appeals court dismissed the verdict, saying the case should have been moved because of racial tensions. Lozano was acquitted at a 1993 retrial in Orlando.