FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Florida police officer charged with killing a stranded black motorist should stand trial because it was his aggressive and reckless actions that created the altercation that ended with the man's death, prosecutors said it court documents filed Thursday.
Prosecutors said Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja, who was fired after the killing, never identified himself to 31-year-old Corey Jones before shooting him. Raja was working in plainclothes and driving an unmarked white van when he drove the wrong way up a dark highway off-ramp and parked directly in front of Jones' broken down SUV.
They say it was Raja's aggressive actions and words, including a "barrage of profanity," that caused Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, to pull his own gun in self-defense nearly three years ago. Raja, 40 and of South Asian descent, then shot him multiple times.
Raja "had no badge, no law enforcement insignia, no radio and absolutely no verbal approach that would allow any reasonable or unreasonable person to conclude he was an officer of the law," Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes said in written closing arguments that followed a two-day hearing last week. "The only logical conclusion that a citizen such as Corey could reach...was that he was about to be the unfortunate victim of a violent crime. And that is exactly what happened."
Raja's attorneys want the charges thrown out under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gained national prominence in 2012 after neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin. It 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. The law does not apply, however, when it's the instigator of the altercation using deadly force.
Florida lawmakers flipped the burden of proof in such cases last year, requiring the state to prove that a "stand your ground" defense does not apply before someone invoking it can be tried.
Prosecutors are trying to persuade Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer that Raja should stand trial this summer on manslaughter and attempted murder charges for the death of Brown, a housing inspector and reggae band drummer who was returning home from a late-night performance when he was killed.
Raja attorney Richard Lubin wrote in his closing argument released Wednesday that it would be "utterly lawless" to convict an officer based on anything other than his conduct "at the moment he decided to use force."
Fernandes rejected that, saying such a reading would mean a police officer could never be charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence. That's defined as killing someone through actions that show a "conscious indifference to consequences."
Jones 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 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.
Fernandez wrote that if Raja would have "acted in the manner consistent of how the huge majority of well-intentioned officers act on a daily basis, Corey would be alive today."
Feuer has said she will rule within a month.