Former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja is requesting a new trial in fatal shooting of stranded motorist Corey Jones nearly five years ago.
In so doing, he reportedly is planning to use a dozen reasons to justify the need for another chance to prove his innocence in the courtroom.
His primary argument is that the killing was “justifiable” in his job as an officer, a claim the jury never considered during last year’s trial, based on a judge’s ruling.
Eric Schwartzreich, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale, says Raja’s two felony convictions and 25-year prison sentence could be overturned because of that issue.
“It’s a winner-winner, chicken dinner, it’s their ace in the hole,” adds Schwartzreich.
Raja’s appellate lawyer began the process last month by submitting a 75-page request to the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. The state Attorney General’s office has several months to respond, although it will likely be another year before a three-judge panel makes a final decision.
The 42-year-old Raja is currently being held at a state prison in Ocala, as the first Florida officer in about 30 years to be convicted for an on-duty shooting.
Raja and Corey Jones came face to face on the night of Oct. 18, 2015, on a southbound Interstate 95 exit-ramp in Palm Beach Gardens.
The 31-year-old Jones was waiting for a tow truck for his disabled SUV, when Raja approached him dressed in plain clothes while working on a car burglary operation at 3:15 a.m.
During questioning, Raja said he first thought Jones’ Hyundai Santa Fe was abandoned.
Ultimately, the jury rejected Raja’s self-defense claim of being threatened at gunpoint after telling Jones he was an officer. He told investigators that he left his badge and police vest in his unmarked van.
PBGPD ID officer who shot, killed Corey Jones as Norman Raja; was on duty, in plain clothes, unmarked police vehicle https://t.co/cNBnoBvOhk
— WPTV (@WPTV) October 19, 2015
Prosecutors used Jones’ recorded call for roadside assistance to show that Raja acted aggressively by walking toward Jones with a gun while using profanities.
Jones, who worked as a Delray Beach city housing inspector, was hit by bullets in each arm, and by a fatal shot that tore through his heart and both lungs. His licensed .380-caliber handgun gun, which prosecutors said he had only for protection, was found 41 yards from his body, and was never fired.
Raja was found guilty on two charges. One of the convictions is for manslaughter by culpable negligence, while the other is for attempted first-degree murder, for bullets that missed hitting Jones.
Attorney Steven Malone, who is handling the appeal, feels that the appeals court should throw out at least one of the convictions.
“Dividing the homicide into two charges, resulting in two convictions and sentences for the same conduct violates” the law, Malone writes.
The main claim in Raja’s appeal is a challenge to a ruling by Judge Marx, which had prevented the jury from considering whether the situation was “justifiable use of force by a law enforcement officer” under state law.
Prosecutors say the officer was not trying to make an arrest, and therefore should not be protected by that law.
They write, “no facts were presented whatsoever which would create a jury question on the issue of whether the defendant was making an arrest at the time he shot and killed Mr. Jones.”
“He made a decision to shoot first and ask questions later … disgracing the badge that men and women wear,” the prosecutor added, blasting Raja as a “reckless killer.”
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, says the union remains 100 percent behind Raja and will continue to pay his legal expenses.