WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A former police chief told a judge Tuesday that a fired police officer’s fatal shooting of a stranded black motorist was “unjustified” and resulted from the officer’s “lazy and reckless” tactics as he approached the victim’s broken down SUV on a darkened highway off-ramp.
W.D. Libby, a former Punta Gorda, Florida, police chief, testified that ex-officer Nouman Raja violated numerous protocols in October 2015 when in plainclothes he drove an unmarked van the wrong way up the off-ramp, exited in front of Corey Jones’ SUV and didn’t identify himself as a police officer. Libby said given the circumstances, Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, likely thought he was about to be robbed or carjacked and pulled his handgun. Raja told investigators he opened fire when Jones pointed his gun at him.
“If I was sitting there (like Jones), I would have had my gun out,” Libby told Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer. Libby, now a consultant, testified for prosecutors.
Raja’s attorneys are trying to persuade Feuer to dismiss manslaughter and attempted murder charges under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. They say Raja feared for his life when he opened fire on Jones, whose SUV stalled as he returned from his reggae band’s late-night concert.
The two-day hearing ended Tuesday. Feuer told the lawyers to submit written closing arguments within a week and she will rule within a month.
The “stand your ground” law says people can use lethal force if they reasonably believe their life is threatened, but not if they created the situation. Raja, 40, who is of South Asian descent, is the first Palm Beach County law enforcement officer in decades to be prosecuted for an on-duty fatal shooting.
Raja is scheduled to stand trial in July if the charges aren’t dismissed and could get a life sentence.
The hearing was briefly interrupted late Tuesday when a female relative of Jones wailed, screamed, stood up and slammed her cellphone to the floor as a medical examiner discussed his autopsy. Other relatives quickly escorted the woman out.
Earlier, Palm Beach County sheriff’s Detective Kenny Smith testified Raja said he identified himself as a police officer and ordered Jones several times to drop his gun before he opened fire. That version of events differs significantly from what was captured by an audio recording the officer didn’t know existed.
Smith testified Raja told him the 31-year-old Jones pointed a gun at him immediately after he identified himself as a police officer. In the recorded interview, Raja told Smith he yelled “drop your gun” repeatedly before he opened fire.
But a recording of Jones’ call to a tow truck dispatcher captured the shooting. In the recording, Raja is never heard identifying himself and opens fire right after yelling “show me your hands,” which has led prosecutors to speculate Raja never saw Jones’ gun.
Smith told prosecutor Adrienne Ellis that Raja’s statement was “inconsistent” with the recording and said he agreed with the decision to prosecute Raja. Under questioning by defense attorney Rick King, he agreed that officers frequently get details wrong after shootings but that doesn’t mean they are intentionally trying to mislead.
Jones’ brother, former National Football League player C.J. Jones, testified that Corey Jones had recently bought the gun to protect his drum equipment, which cost about $10,000. He said his brother seemed calm during a call shortly before the shooting. Mathew Huntsberger, a bandmate of Jones, testified he drank beer and smoked marijuana with Corey Jones a few hours before the shooting. He said Jones’ personality was “really mellow” and not confrontational.
Raja was part of a detail targeting auto burglars when he spotted Jones’ SUV. After parking facing Jones, Raja got out wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap. He’s never heard identifying himself on the recording of Jones talking to the tow truck dispatcher.
Sgt. Javier Garcia testified Tuesday he ordered Raja to wear a vest marked “Police” on both sides during the operation, in case he needed to interact with civilians, and to carry his radio. Both were found inside the van.
In the 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 raise his hands, 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 as Jones 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.