FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A judge ruled Friday that a Florida police officer must stand trial for the fatal shooting of a stranded black motorist, saying his retelling of what happened on the darkened highway off-ramp was "unreliable and not credible."
Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer rejected fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja's attempt to use Florida's "stand your ground" law, saying his statements to investigators after the 2015 shooting of Corey Jones are not supported by an audiotape of the shooting and other physical evidence, such as the location of the bullet casings.
She said the evidence shows Raja, who was working in plain clothes and driving an unmarked van, was not truthful when he told investigators about five hours after the shooting that he identified himself as a police officer when he approached Jones' broken-down SUV or when he said he pulled his gun only after Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, pulled his own handgun.
Instead, Feuer agreed with prosecutors that Raja never identified himself and approached Jones aggressively with his gun drawn, making Jones believe he was about to be attacked by a stranger.
"It was then, and only then, that Jones pulled out his gun in response," Feuer wrote. She also believes Raja opened fire as Jones ran away, with the two of the three bullets that struck Jones hitting him in the back. She found Raja's use of force "was not reasonable."
The Palm Beach County State Attorney's office declined comment Friday on Feuer's ruling.
Raja's lead attorney, Richard Lubin, said he plans to file an appeal next week, which will likely delay the trial's scheduled July start. Without going into specifics, he said he disagreed with Feuer's conclusions and how she applied the law.
At a two-day hearing last month, Lubin argued that Raja should be protected under "stand your ground" because he feared for his life when Jones pulled his gun. The law says anyone, not just police officers, can use deadly force if they believe it necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. However, the law does not cover an altercation's instigator.
Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer, was returning from a late-night performance by his reggae band when his SUV stalled and he pulled over on an Interstate 95 off-ramp.
Raja, who was part of a team trying to catch car burglars, spotted the vehicle and drove the wrong way up the off-ramp just before 3:15 a.m.
Raja exited his van and approached Jones, who was on the phone with a tow truck dispatch center, which recorded the call — something Raja didn't know when he made his statement to investigators. At the time, he had been a police officer for seven years, transferring to Palm Beach Gardens six months earlier.
Raja was not wearing his tactical vest with police markings as ordered and he 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, Jones is heard saying "Huh?" just before Raja yells "You good?" 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. Feuer believes it was about this time that Jones pulled his gun, which his family says he had bought just days before to protect his musical equipment valued at $10,000.
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 with his right hand. Feuer pointed out in her ruling that Jones was left handed.
Prosecutors say Raja saw Jones throw down his gun but kept firing, which is why he is charged with attempted murder. Investigators have been unable to determine when the fatal shot was fired, but it was one of the shots that struck Jones in the back.
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.
Palm Beach Gardens quickly fired Raja, who was still in his employee probation period. He was charged eight months later.