For the first time in nearly 30 years, a Florida police officer was sentenced to in prison Thursday for an on-duty fatal shooting. Former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja was sentenced to 25 years after being convicted in March of manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder for thea 31-year-old African-American drummer whose SUV had broken down on an interstate.
Circuit Judge Joseph Marx could have given Raja a life sentence. Marx imposed a 25-year sentences on both convictions, to be served concurrently, following emotional statements from family and friends of both Jones and Raja. Marx called the case "heartbreaking."
Raja must serve out the full 25 years, reports CBS affiliate WPEC-TV. His lawyers plan to appeal.
Prosecutors said Raja, one of the few police officers nationwide convicted of an on-duty shooting, escalated what should have been a routine interaction into a deadly confrontation.
After last month's verdict, the Jones family and their attorney, Benjamin Crump, replied in unison when asked what sentence Raja should receive: "What Corey would have got if he shot Raja." The officer, who had been on house arrest, was jailed after the verdict. Speaking Thursday, Jones' family implored the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
"Today is a victory for our family," Corey Jones' father, Clinton Jones Sr., told reporters after the hearing. "But at he the same time, we are still suffering. We are still hurting, because we don't have Corey here with us."
Marx had previously rejected motions by Raja's attorneys to throw out the verdicts. They argued that the evidence didn't support his conviction and that Marx should have instructed jurors to consider whether Raja's use of force was justified under Florida's "stand your ground" law.
Raja, of Asian descent, was in plain clothes as part of an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones' SUV at 3:15 a.m. Oct. 18, 2015. Jones was returning home from a nightclub performance when his vehicle stalled. He had a concealed-weapons permit and carried a handgun, purchased days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.
Raja, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, drove an unmarked van the wrong way up an off ramp and stopped a few feet from the broken-down vehicle.
Prosecutors said Raja never identified himself as an officer and acted so aggressively that Jones must have thought he was about to be carjacked or killed. Raja's supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest if he approached a civilian. He didn't. Prosecutors also questioned why Raja didn't pull his badge from his pocket.
What police didn't know at first was that Jones had been talking to a tow-truck dispatcher on a recorded line. That recording reveals Jones saying, "Huh?" as his door opens. Raja yells, "You good?" Jones says he is. Raja replies twice, "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 Jones pulled his gun and tried to get away. Raja fired three shots; Jones ran down an embankment. Prosecutors said he threw his gun, but Raja fired three more times, 10 seconds after the first volley. Jones was killed by a bullet through his heart.
Prosecutors said Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, tried to deceive investigators. He claimed he said "Police, can I help you?" as Jones jumped from the SUV. He also told them Jones 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.
Prosecutors charged Raja with manslaughter, saying his actions created the confrontation and showed "culpable negligence." They also charged him with attempted murder, saying that although they couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of Raja's six shots killed Jones, the second volley was a conscious effort to kill him as he fled.
Raja's defense asked Thursday that a judge sentence Raja on the manslaughter conviction alone, a request the judge denied.
Giving an emotional victim impact statement in court, Jones' aunt Sheila Banks said Raja hasn't shown remorse or apologized to her family. She said the family has endured an "incredible amount of public and private grief" and suffers through flashbacks of hearing Jones run for his life on the audio recording.
"Freedom is a privilege that [Raja] should never experience again in his life," Banks said. "Nouman Raja does not deserve an option to be free. Please render him the same mercy he rendered to Corey Jones on October 18, 2015."
She described her nephew as a talented drummer and a "gentle soul."
Though tears, Jones' young niece described learning at 9 that her uncle had been killed by an officer. Addressing Raja, she said, "You took something that cannot be replaced."
"Life will never be the same without my uncle's smile and his existence," the girl said. "This should never have happened….we are supposed to be protected by police, not shot by police."
Clinton Jones Sr., Jones' father, told the judge that he still keeps his son's phone number in his phone because he can't bear to delete it.
He said Raja has forever damaged the lives of Jones' friends and family, calling Raja a "disgrace to honorable members of law enforcement."
"He betrayed us all," Jones said. "He hunted down an innocent man and killed him."
Others who spoke on behalf of Raja, including his wife and brother, painted a starkly different picture of the former officer, calling him a "protector" and a family man who became a cop because of his desire to help others. Raja's brother Adnan, also a law enforcement officer, decried the image painted of his brother in the media as a racist and called the conviction politically motivated.
"It was never an issue of race," Adnan Raja said. "Today he's being labeled a murderer and a racist. I just don't feel right about it."
He said his brother was a "good guy" confronted with a difficult decision. He expressed condolences to the Jones family.
The last Florida officer sentenced for an on-duty killing was Miami's William Lozano in 1989. The Hispanic officer fatally shot a black motorcyclist who he said tried to hit him. A passenger died when the motorcycle crashed, setting off three days of rioting.
Lozano was convicted of two manslaughter counts in a Miami trial and sentenced to seven years, but he never served it. State appellate court justices dismissed the verdict, saying the case should have been moved from Miami because of racial tensions. Lozano was acquitted at a 1993 retrial in Orlando.
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