FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Florida police officer's actions before he killed a stranded black motorist are "irrelevant" and the shooting was justified because the man pointed a gun at him, the officer's attorneys argued in court documents released Wednesday as they attempted to get charges against him dismissed under the state's "stand your ground" law.
Attorneys for fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja told Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer in written closing arguments that she should throw out the manslaughter and attempted-murder charges against Raja because "there is no way" he was the aggressor in the October 2015 confrontation that ended with him fatally shooting 31-year-old Corey Jones. The confrontation happened when Raja stopped to investigate after Jones' SUV had broken down on the side of a highway off-ramp as he returned home from his reggae band's late-night concert.
Without conceding Raja violated police practices, attorney Richard Lubin wrote it would be "utterly lawless" to convict an officer based on anything other than his conduct "at the moment he decided to use force." He wrote courts have ruled that officers who are performing their duty cannot be considered instigators because that would preclude them from doing their job.
"A civilian approaching Mr. Jones in like circumstances would be treated as a Good Samaritan, stopping to assist another driver. She would not be held to the higher standards the state seeks to apply to the conduct of Officer Raja," Lubin wrote.
Feuer's assistant said prosecutors have not yet filed their closing arguments. They said at a two-day hearing last week that the plainclothes officer ignored orders to wear a vest marked "Police" when interacting with civilians, needlessly drove his unmarked van the wrong way up a darkened off-ramp and didn't identify himself, making Jones think he was a robber and pull his gun. Jones had a concealed-weapons permit. His family says he had just purchased the gun because he feared someone would steal his musical equipment, valued at $10,000.
The judge has said she will decide within a month whether Raja, 40 and of South Asian descent, can be tried as scheduled in July, although an appeal by the losing side would likely delay the trial. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gained national prominence in 2012 after neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin, says people have no obligation to retreat if threatened and can use deadly force if they believe it necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. However, it does not allow an altercation's instigator to use deadly force.
Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer, was stranded on an Interstate 95 off-ramp just before 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015.
Raja, who was investigating car burglaries, got out of his unmarked white van and walked toward Jones, who was on the phone with a tow truck dispatch center, which recorded the call.
Prosecutors say Raja is never heard on the dispatch recording identifying himself as a police officer. Raja, who says he identified himself, was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap.
In the tow dispatch recording, Raja, a seven-year police officer who had joined Palm Beach Gardens six months earlier, yells "You good?" as he approaches. Jones says he is. Raja twice replies, "Really?" with Jones replying "yeah" each time.
Suddenly, Raja shouts for Jones to put his hands up, using an expletive. Jones replies "Hold on!" and Raja repeats his demand. Raja then fires three shots in less than two seconds. Ten seconds pass before three more shots are heard a second apart, apparently Raja firing at Jones as he ran down an embankment. Raja told investigators Jones kept pointing his gun at him; prosecutors say Raja saw him throw it down but kept firing, which is why he is charged with attempted murder. Investigators have been unable to determine when the fatal shot was fired.
Raja then used his personal cellphone to call 911 with the operator picking up 33 seconds after the last shot was fired. Raja is recorded yelling orders to drop the gun; prosecutors say he was trying to mislead investigators into believing he hadn't seen the gun thrown. Jones' body was found 200 feet (60 meters) from the SUV and 125 feet (38 meters) from his gun, which was unfired.