PALM BEACH (CBSMiami/AP) – Closing arguments were made Wednesday morning in the trial of a former Palm Beach Gardens police officer charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of a stranded driver.
The case is now in the jury’s hands. They will resume their deliberations on Thursday morning at 8 a.m.
Prosecutor Adrienne Ellis told the four-man, two-woman jury that fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja was the aggressor when he fatally shot 31-year-old Corey Jones along a darkened I-95 exit ramp. Ellis said Raja, 41, was so criminally reckless that he caused Jones to believe he was being robbed and pulled out his legally possessed handgun before Raja opened fire. Ellis said Raja fired a second volley even after Jones discarded his gun.
“From the time he pulled up, his behavior and conduct was reckless,” Ellis said. “Everything he did, he knew or should have known would have led to the death of Corey Jones.”
Raja’s attorneys said the shooting was legal because Raja feared for his life.
“When he pointed that gun at Raja everything changed. It was the use of deadly force, it was the threat of deadly force and everything changed as sad as that may be,” said defense attorney Richard Lubin.
This is the first time in 26 years that a Florida police officer is on trial for an on-duty killing. Jones’ death is one of many high-profile killings of black men by police officers under circumstances that critics found questionable, and most of those officers were cleared.
Jones, a housing inspector and part-time drummer, had been returning home from a nightclub performance on Oct. 18, 2015, when his vehicle stalled and he pulled off the road. Jones had a concealed weapons permit and had purchased a .38-caliber handgun days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.
Raja was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap and driving an unmarked white van as part of an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones’ SUV. He drove the wrong way up the off-ramp, stopping feet from Jones, who was talking to a tow truck dispatcher on a recorded line.
Raja’s supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest to identify himself if he approached a civilian. He did not.
The recording shows Jones saying “Huh?” as his door opens. Raja yells, “You good?” Jones says he is. Raja twice replies, “Really?” with Jones replying “Yeah.”
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 and retreated. Raja fired three shots and Jones ran down an embankment. Prosecutors say he threw his gun, which was found 125 feet from his body, but Raja fired three more times, 10 seconds after the first volley.
Jones was killed by a bullet through his heart. A medical examiner testified that Jones would have dropped feet from where the fatal shot struck him.
Prosecutors say Raja did not know at the time of the shooting that Jones was on the line tow-truck dispatcher and call was recorded.
Raja 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.
“Why is he saying drop the gun, then he says it again. Ya, I’m good, drop the gun. Because he’s staging. Let me make this look real, sound believable. Let me say it one more time. He is staging, he’s pretending, he is lying,” said Ellis.
Later, in a video-recorded interview a few hours after the shooting, Rajo told investigators that he said “Police, can I help you?” as Jones jumped out of the SUV. He told investigators that Jones then leapt backward and pointed his gun, forcing him to fire. Raja said Jones ran but turned and again pointed his gun, forcing him to fire the second volley.
The defense said Jones was armed when all the shots were fired.
“There is no evidence of Corey running, all the shots were fired while Corey had the gun,” said Lubin.
Jones’ body was found 200 feet from the SUV and 125 feet from his unfired gun.
If convicted, Raja faces anywhere from a year to life in prison.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)