A Florida prosecutor told a jury Wednesday that a police officer's actions alone escalated a chance encounter with ainto a confrontation that left the motorist dead. The fired officer's attorney called the death "a tragedy" but said it was caused by the motorist pulling a gun.
Prosecutor Adrienne Ellis told the four-man, two-woman jury that Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja was the aggressor when he fatally shot 31-year-old Corey Jones along a darkened Interstate 95 exit ramp.
This is the first time in 26 years a Florida police officer is on trial for an on-duty killing. Jurors began deliberating the case Wednesday afternoon.
During closing statements, Ellis said Raja was so criminally reckless that he caused Jones to pull out his legally possessed handgun in the belief he was being robbed before Raja opened fire. Ellis said Raja then fired a second volley 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 attorney, Richard Lubin, countered by saying that no matter what the officer did, he would not have fired had Jones not pointed a gun at him.
Raja "didn't leave home that night trying to hurt anybody or be involved in a horrible turn of events that began when Corey Jones pulled a gun and pointed it at his head," Lubin said. Jones, he said, "couldn't take that back."
Raja opted not to testify in his own defense, CBS affiliate WPEC-TV reports. The trial that launched last week was often emotional. On Feb. 27, several of Jones' family members left court and others cried as prosecutors played video taken by an investigator documenting the crime scene that showed Jones' body lying in the grass, WPEC reports.
Raja cried as he watched a video of his own account of the shooting to another officer the day of the incident, saying in the video, "I didn't want to die."
Raja, who is 41 years old and of South Asian descent, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder. Jurors, however, could consider lesser charges — some punishable by a year in jail or less — or acquit him altogether.
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. Ellis also questioned why Raja didn't pull out the badge he had in his pocket.
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 Jones would have dropped feet from where the fatal shot struck him.
Prosecutors say Raja, not knowing of the tow-truck dispatcher recording, tried to deceive investigators. He told them in a video-recorded interview a few hours after the shooting that he said "Police, can I help you?" as Jones jumped out of the SUV. He told investigators 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.
Raja's attorneys say Jones' initial "Huh?" shows Raja said something as he approached. Their expert testified something unintelligible and faint was picked up on the recording.
Another defense expert said any discrepancies between Raja's statement to investigators and the audio recording and other evidence could have been caused by stress fogging his memory.
Lubin said that if Raja was trying to deceive investigators, he would have put on the vest and planted the gun in Jones' hand before other officers reached the scene.
"People can make mistakes without it being a lie," Lubin said.
They also called a medical examiner who said Jones could have continued running for several seconds after Raja's bullet hit his heart, meaning Raja could have fired the second volley before Jones discarded his gun.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Raja shortly after the shooting. He has been on house arrest since he was charged in 2016.