Former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja’s actions “created the circumstances” that led to the October 2015 shooting death of stranded motorist Corey Jones, according to a judge who on Friday denied Raja’s request to throw out manslaughter and attempted murder charges against him.
Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer denied Raja’s motion for immunity from prosecution less than a month after a two-day hearing tied to Raja’s claims that he acted in self-defense under what is commonly referred to as Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
While Jones’ family applauded the judge’s decision Friday, Raja’s defense team prepared to fight the ruling — a move which could delay his anticipated July trial date.
In her 27-page ruling, Feuer on Friday said Raja’s attorneys can still argue to jurors in his upcoming trial that he acted in self-defense when he shot Jones, who was on the phone with a roadside assistance operator, trying to get a tow truck for his broken-down SUV when Raja approached him in plainclothes.
But Feuer spent two full pages of Friday’s ruling pointing out inconsistencies in the videotaped statement Raja made to investigators five hours after the shooting, concluding that Chief Assistant State Attorney Adrienne Ellis and Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes had proven by clear and convincing evidence that Raja’s use of force was unjustifiable.
Even taking into consideration arguments tied to a Florida Supreme Court fight over whether or not police officers can seek immunity under the “stand your ground” law, Feuer said Raja “acted unreasonably and not as a prudent person under the circumstances and the law.”
“The manner in which Defendant approached Jones — in the middle of the night, driving the wrong way up the ramp, in a white unmarked van, parking head-on diagonal to Jones’s vehicle just feet away, jumping out of his vehicle, in plain clothes, with his firearm drawn with no indication he was a police officer — would not afford an ordinary citizen Stand Your Ground immunity,” Feuer wrote.
Defense attorney Richard Lubin, who is representing Raja along with attorneys Scott Richardson and Ralph King, III, said he disagreed both with the judge’s ruling and the basis for her decision.
Lubin said he has immediate plans to ask Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal to consider whether Feuer’s ruling was in error. Although an agreement from the appellate court to consider the matter would stop Raja’s circuit court case indefinitely, Lubin on Friday said he couldn’t say whether the move would put the anticipated July 16 trial date in jeopardy.
“Those issues are out of my control,” Lubin said. “But if it goes in July, we will certainly be ready. And if it doesn’t, then we will be working on the appeal.”
In the meantime, Florida’s Supreme Court is still pondering the issue of whether police officers are even entitled to “stand your ground” claims. The test case involves Peter Peraza, a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy, who the 4th District Court ruled is immune from prosecution under “stand your ground” for the July 2013 on-duty shooting death of Jermaine McBean in Oakland Park.
Feuer mentioned Peraza’s case several times in her ruling, but made distinctions between his case and Raja’s. First, she wrote, Peraza’s account of the shooting, unlike Raja’s, was consistent with the physical evidence in the case.
The discrepancies Feuer noted in Raja’s statement included Raja’s assertion that he called 911 before he fired the second of three shots at Jones even though phone records showed he didn’t place the call until 33 seconds after he fired the last shots. Raja also said Jones charged at him with a gun in his right hand, the ruling said, but Jones’ brother, Clinton “C.J.” Jones, Jr., testified on May 8 that his brother was left-handed.
Feuer also noted in her ruling that in the Broward case, Peraza was in full uniform and that witnesses corroborated his claims that he he identified himself as a police officer and told McBean to drop the rifle he was carrying along a busy street. McBean’s family in 2015 released a photograph showing he was wearing headphones at the time.
In Raja’s case, his defense team said he, too, identified himself as a police officer before he shot Jones, but the roadside assistance call that captured the brief exchange between the men recorded no such introduction. Defense attorneys called audio expert Frank Piazza as a witness during the May hearing. Piazza testified that the recording shows that Raja possibly uttered a multi-syllabic phrase at the beginning of the confrontation that the recording didn’t pick up.
Feuer in her ruling found Piazza’s testimony credible, but said it was a moot point, pointing out that Jones is heard in the recording saying “huh” before answering Raja’s repeated questions of whether he was “good” and ultimately pleading “hold on” moments before the shots began.
“It is common sense that in saying ‘huh,’ Jones did not hear what was, if anything, specifically said to him that evening,” Feuer wrote.
Summarizing the testimony in the two-day hearing, Feuer found all the state and defense witnesses credible with two exceptions: Raja in his video statement, and defense expert Christopher Chapman, who concluded that Raja acted reasonably.
Chapman, executive director of National Excessive Force Institute, said he didn’t consider whether Raja’s video statement was credible on the manner in which he approached Jones’ vehicle in his assessment of the case. Feuer dismissed his testimony, saying it had “numerous inconsistencies.”
Jones’ family, which includes former NFL star Anquan Boldin, said in a press conference during the hearing last month that if anyone would have had a viable “stand your ground” claim, it would have been Jones.
The family’s attorney, Ben Crump, said in an email Friday that they were pleased with Feuer’s ruling, and reiterated their belief that Jones died an innocent man.
“Nouman Raja killed Corey Jones without any reasonable justification, and his attempt to hide behind Stand Your Ground was a shameful ploy to escape prosecution,” Crump said. “I hope the judge’s ruling sends a loud and clear message to law officers around the nation that when they act outside the law, they will face the consequences.”
Feuer’s ruling comes on the two-year anniversary of Raja’s arrest on charges of manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted murder with a firearm.