WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Both sides agreed Tuesday that the fatal shooting of a stranded black motorist by a then-Florida police officer was a tragedy.
But while a prosecutor told jurors during opening statements that former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja's actions turned what should have been a routine interaction with Corey Jones in October 2015 into a deadly confrontation, Raja's attorney said Jones pointed his gun without cause and made the officer fear for his life.
Prosecutor Brian Fernandes gave an impassioned presentation to the four-man, two-woman jury, telling them an audio recording of the confrontation shows Raja was the aggressor and made Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, fear for his safety and draw his .38-caliber handgun. He said Raja, who was in plain clothes and driving an unmarked van, drove the wrong way up an Interstate 95 off-ramp, never identified himself as a police officer and aggressively confronted Jones, 31, creating Jones' fear and caused him to draw his gun.
"Instead of being his saving grace, he (Raja) was his angel of death," Fernandes said. "As (Jones) was laying on the ground, breathing his last breath, there was no way to actually know (Raja) was a law enforcement officer."
Scott Richardson, one of Raja's attorneys, told jurors he was going to stick to facts, not emotion. He said Jones jumped out of his car, that Raja identified himself and offered his help, but Jones pulled a gun, giving Raja no choice but to defend himself.
"This is a terrible, sad and tragic case," Richardson said. "It was a perfect storm that turned deadly when Corey Jones points his handgun."
Raja, dressed in a dark suit, sat quietly but intently during the opening statements. Raja, 41 and of South Asian descent, faces a possible life sentence if convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder charges.
Jones, a part-time drummer who also worked as a housing inspector, was returning home from a nightclub performance early on the morning of Oct. 18, 2015, when his SUV broke down. His drums, valued at $10,000, were in the back. Jones, the brother of former NFL player C.J. Jones, had just purchased his gun days earlier.
C.J. Jones, who played for Cleveland in 2003 and 2004, testified briefly Tuesday, saying his brother seemed calm when he called around 3 a.m. to tell him his car had broken down. He said he volunteered to pick his brother up, but Corey Jones said he didn't want to leave his drums. He also testified his brother was left-handed. The defense is expected to say Jones pointed the gun at Raja with his right hand.
Raja spotted Jones' SUV about 3:15 a.m. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap because he was investigating auto burglaries. His sergeant testified at a hearing that he told Raja to don a vest marked "police" if he confronted anyone, but the vest was found inside the unmarked van.
Raja drove up the off-ramp, blocking Jones' SUV. He told Palm Beach County sheriff's investigators that when Jones got out, he identified himself, but then fired because Jones pulled a gun. He said Jones ran down an embankment and pointed the gun again, so he fired more shots. Jones died at the scene.
Investigators have said Raja didn't know Jones was speaking to a tow truck dispatcher on a recorded line. Madeline Tolliver, the dispatcher, told the jury Tuesday that Jones seemed "calm, not irritated" as she talked to him before the call is interrupted by Raja's arrival. Raja is never heard identifying himself in the tape played for the jury.
Jones is heard first, saying, "Huh?" just before Raja yells, "You good?" Jones says he is. Raja twice replies, "Really?" with Jones replying "Yeah."
Richardson says Jones' "Huh?" proves Raja said something that wasn't picked up by the recording. He told jurors Raja said, "Police — Can I help you?"
Suddenly, Raja shouts at Jones to raise his hands, using an expletive. Jones replies "Hold on!" and Raja repeats his demand. Prosecutors believe it was then that Jones pulled his gun. Raja fired three shots. Ten seconds later, Raja fired three more shots. Tolliver and members of Jones' family wept as the audio was played.
Prosecutors say Raja saw Jones throw down his gun but kept firing, which is why he is charged with attempted murder. Investigators were unable to determine when the fatal shot was fired, but it 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. 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 unfired gun.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Raja, who was in his employee probation period after transferring there months earlier from a neighboring city. He was charged in 2016 and has been under house arrest.
This story has been corrected to show that the defense attorney giving the opening statement was Scott Richardson, not Richard Lubin.