Editorial: ‘Stand Your Ground’ threatens to kill trial of Jones’ killer

Jan 27, 2018
  • By The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
Michael Marsh, 34, of Vero Beach, poses for a portrait at the site of the memorial for his late childhood friend Corey Jones near the Military Trail southbound I-95 exit in Palm Beach Gardens on October 17, 2017. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

The injection of Florida’s abominable “stand your ground” law into the Corey Jones case is a dismaying turn of events in the search for justice for the slain drummer.

Now, instead of a trial in April in which disgraced police officer Nouman Raja will have to defend himself that he shot the fleeing 31-year-old “without lawful justification,” in the words of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s probable cause affidavit, there will first be a hearing in which prosecutors will have to prove that Raja wasn’t acting in self-defense.

RELATED: The Post’s Corey Jones coverage

At best, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer will deny the “stand your ground” claim — and open the door to appeals which are sure to further delay a long-awaited trial.

But if the judge rules that prosecutors failed to demolish Raja’s self-defense claim, she’ll force them to drop the charges. The case over the Oct. 18, 2015, killing won’t go to a jury at all. And Jones’ grieving family will be deprived of the chance to seek the justice in the courts that should be rightfully theirs.

Our hope, however, is that Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg would pursue every possible avenue for an appeal.

Florida was the first of many states to pass a “stand your ground” law, thanks to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and then-Gov. Jeb Bush, in 2005. It removed the legal responsibility to retreat from a dangerous situation and allows the use of deadly force when a person feels greatly threatened.

Last year, this “Gunshine State” of ours became the first to add an absurd reinforcement: now, instead of defendants proving they were using force in self-defense, it’s up to the prosecution to show why that force wasn’t lawful.

RELATED: Editorial: Raja’s ‘fear for life’ excuse falls flat

You’d think this would be easy when it’s the shooter who sets up all the conditions of a confrontation, as Raja did. A Palm Beach Gardens police officer who was working undercover in the predawn hours, he pulled up his unmarked van when he spotted Jones’ car stranded on an Interstate 95 off-ramp and approached wearing no badge or clothing identifying him as a police officer in a “tactically unsound, unsafe and grossly negligent manner,” to quote the affidavit.

Jones was on the phone with a roadside assistance dispatcher, seeking help for his stalled car. According to that tape, Raja did not identify himself as a police officer, but within seconds shots were fired. First three, then a pause, then three more.

All those shots, investigators found, came from Raja’s gun, the final three — including the fatal shot — while Jones was running away and after he had dropped his own gun.

These were the actions of a foolish, irresponsible cop who was quickly fired by the Gardens police department when investigators found that facts contradicted the account Raja told at the scene.

But this is a cop nonetheless. And time and again, we have seen police officers escape punishment in what seem obvious cases of unjustified shootings because case law — and sympathetic juries — are weighted toward law-enforcement officers who “must make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations.”

For that to happen here would be a gross injustice. For one thing, we know that Raja already has lied about the imaginary danger he perceived. Investigators found that 33 seconds after he shot and killed Jones, he called 911. And before the operator could answer, he barked, “Drop that f—king gun right now!” as if frightened by the man he had just slain. He told the operator he had faced a “black male” who “had a silver handgun in his right hand.” Jones was left-handed, his family says.

RELATED: Florida Senate OKs broadening ‘stand your ground’ law

The appalling idiocy of the “stand your ground” law can be seen clearly if you look at it from the other direction. Imagine being Corey Jones, alone on that highway in your crippled car at 3:15 a.m. A van roars up, blocks your car, and a man approaches you. There are no visible signs that he is a police officer.

Jones had a gun. He had purchased it less than 72 hours earlier. The chamber was empty. The safety was on. It wasn’t fired at the scene, according to the affidavit.

But imagine if Jones had fired his gun and shot Raja first. Well, then, he’d have a basis for claiming “stand your ground.” He’d be the one entitled to slay a man and never go to trial for it.

A society that claims to call itself civilized shouldn’t operate like this. This is whoever shoots and kills first, wins. This is the Wild West at high noon.

“This sickening case is a perfect illustration of why this ill-conceived law must be repealed,” says state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who has filed a bill to do that, but in the Republican-controlled Legislature, it hasn’t even been placed on a committee agenda for a hearing.

“Stand your ground” has been terrible for this state. A study  published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the law has been directly related to a 24.4 percent increase in the monthly homicide rate and a 31.6 percent increase in the rate of firearm-related homicides since 2005.

If it leads to Raja evading a jury trial, every politician who kowtowed to the NRA to put it on the books should be ashamed.