BY MARC FREEMAN
WEST PALM BEACH – Former police officer Nouman Raja, convicted in the fatal shooting of stranded motorist Corey Jones, was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in state prison.
Circuit Judge Joseph Marx punished Raja, 41, for two convictions by a jury last month: manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted first-degree murder.
Raja was found guilty of both causing the death of Jones, 31, and trying to kill him by firing shots that missed at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015, in Palm Beach Gardens.
“This has been a heartbreaking case,” Marx said before announcing the sentence to a packed courtroom.
Three and a half years after his son was gunned down by Raja, Clinton Jones Sr. said he can’t bear to delete his son Corey as a contact in his phone.
“It’s just hard for me to let go,” Jones said at the start of the sentencing hearing. “I keep it in my phone.”
The fatal shooting happened after a plain-clothed Raja interrupted his patrol for car burglaries to confront Jones on a highway exit ramp.
The manslaughter count was punishable by up to 30 years. The attempted murder count was punishable by a minimum of 25 years to life.
Keep him in prison for the rest of his natural life,” urged Sheila Banks, maternal aunt and godmother of Jones.
Civil rights advocates, weary of police killings of young Black men across the country, hailed the verdict from the all-White jury as a turning point in their battle against racial injustice.
At the same time, police union leaders shook their heads and called it a “sad day” because Raja was only trying to defend himself when Jones threatened him at gunpoint.
It’s extremely rare for an officer to be charged in an on-duty shooting, with few cases for Marx to look at in comparison to determine the sentence.
The last cop to go on trial in Palm Beach County was acquitted in 1994. And the last time a cop in Florida was actually convicted for an on-duty killing was in Miami in 1989.
That officer, William Lozano, was sentenced to the minimum possible term of seven years on two counts of manslaughter for the deaths of a motorcyclist and his passenger. But Lozano ultimately was acquitted at a retrial before serving any time.
Famed defense attorney Roy Black, who represented Lozano through two trials, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday that Marx was in a tough spot because of the “very draconian” mandatory minimum sentence.
“It puts the judge in a very difficult position,” Black said. “When you get a case like this, no police officer should be sentenced to that unless it’s a deliberate homicide.”
“This is a guy who was on duty who doesn’t know this person and then gets involved in some confrontation and shoots him,” Black continued.
“That’s entirely different than the usual murder case where someone has a motive to shoot somebody.”
But Jones family doesn’t see it as a difficult decision at all — they want the maximum possible penalty.
In a letter to Marx this month, Jones’ uncle Marc J. Johnson wrote, “Good cops are heroes. Nouman Raja is a criminal.”
Johnson, on Jones’ maternal side, noted that Raja “chose to confront Corey Jones and kill him for no reason. Afterwards he lied and conspired to cover up his crime and blame the victim.”
The family, and prosecutors, have said the most critical piece of evidence in the trial was Jones’ recorded call for a tow truck, which captured sounds of the confrontation, the gunshots and the immediate aftermath.
“By ending the life of Corey Jones, Nouman Raja damaged the lives of Corey’s family and friends forever,” Johnson told the judge.
In pleadings since the March 7 verdict, Raja’s lawyers have argued that it’s against the law for a person to be convicted of two homicide-related charges for a single death.
“How could there be both an intentional attempted murder and a completed non-intentional manslaughter?” asked defense attorney Richard Lubin. “There could not be.”
The defense said Marx should have acquitted Raja on one of the counts, if not award a new trial for that and other reasons based on the evidence.
But prosecutors argued both convictions should stand, in part because the charges were based on entirely separate offenses.
They explained that the attempted murder count focused on specific gunshots, while the manslaughter count “was based upon an entire course of conduct showing reckless disregard for human life.”
Raja, wrote prosecutor Brian Fernandes, “was reckless in choosing to drive up the I-95 ramp against the flow of traffic, in choosing to pull an unmarked white van right up to Corey Jones’ car, in choosing to get out and approach that car at 3:00 in the morning without displaying his badge or wearing his vest, in choosing to pull out a gun without ever identifying himself as a law enforcement officer, and in choosing to pursue a young man who was running in fear.”
On April 16, Marx denied, without explanation, the defense’s bid for a retrial.
At a later date, Raja’s attorneys are expected to make a request for him to return to house arrest under a bond, pending the outcome of his appeal.
The judge has the discretion to do so, and there is precedent for it. Lozano, in the Miami case from 30 years ago, was allowed to go home on a $10,000 bond.