A former South Florida police officer was sentenced to prison Thursday for an off-duty shooting that left an African-American motorist dead.
Ex-Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouma Raja was sentenced to 25 years in prison, although the cop faced a life sentence for the 2015 killing of Corey Jones, a 31-year-old Black drummer whose SUV had stalled on the early morning of Oct. 18.
Raja appeared before a crowded court room for Thursday’s hearing, where Jones’ father, Clinton Jones Sr., asked the judge for a life sentence, according to NBC Miami. Jones said the request wasn’t out of hatred, but rather for all the pain Raja had caused his family.
“I lost my baby boy and it’s really painful,” Jones Sr. told the judge.
Raja’s wife, Karine Raja, also spoke at the hearing and asked for leniency on behalf of the couple’s two children.
“I’m so sorry for the Jones family and their loss. By all accounts Corey Jones was a good man, but I can assure you so is my husband,” Karine Raja said. “I also know the future of two innocent children linger in the lenience of this court. Their lives are forever changed, forever scarred.”
The officer’s wife accused the media and others of painting her husband as “a monster, an angel of death” and suggested he was being used as a scapegoat.
“Why I am so angry is that the wrong person was chosen to be a sacrificial lamb,” Karine Raja added. “[Nouman] Raja is the man you wanted serving and protecting you.”
Raja, 41, was convicted on attempted first-degree murder and misdemeanor charges last month for Jones’ killing. Circuit Judge Joseph Marx sentenced the former officer to 25 years in prison for each count, with the sentence to be served concurrently, NBC Miami reported.
“This has been a heartbreaking case,” Marx said from the bench. “I think it has had a profound effect on every single person who has sat through this trial.”
Raja’s attorneys said they plan to appeal the judge’s decision. His lawyers had previously tried to argue that Raja fired in self-defense and that his use of force was justified under Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. A previous judge didn’t agree, however, and rejected their argument.
In court, prosecutors contended the officer escalated what should’ve been a routine interaction into a fatal confrontation. On Thursday, he became the first Florida officer in nearly 30 years to be convicted in an on-duty shooting.
Raja, who’s of South Asian descent, was in plain clothes as part of an auto burglary investigation when he spotted Jones’ broken down SUV around 3:15 a.m., according to The Associated Press. Jones was headed home from a nightclub performance with his reggae band when his vehicle stalled on a highway off-ramp. He had a concealed-weapons permit and carried a gun that he’d purchased just days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV, the outlet reported.
Prosecutors said Raja never identified himself as an officer and acted in a manner that was so aggressive that Jones must’ve thought he was about to be carjacked or, even worse, killed. One of Raja’s supervisors who testified in court said the officer had been instructed to wear a police vest if approaching a civilian.
He didn’t, nor did he display his badge.
Jones was on the phone with a tow truck dispatcher on a recorded line at the time of the incident. The recording showed Jones saying “Huh?” as his door opens. Raja shouts, “You good?” Jones responds that he is. Raja replies twice, “Really?” with Jones saying, “Yeah.”
Seconds later, Raja yells at Jones to raise his hands, using profanity. “Hold on!” Jones shouts back, prompting the officer to repeat his command.
Prosecutors believe Jones pulled his gun and tried flee. The officer fired three rounds and Jones took off down an embankment. Prosecutors said he ditched his gun, but Raja let off three more shots. One of the bullets struck Jones in the heart killing him.
According to prosecutors, Raja was unaware of the tow-truck dispatcher recording and tried to deceive investigators. The officer claimed he announced himself as police, saying “Police, can I help you?” as Jones got out of his SUV. He also told investigators that Jones jumped back and pointed his gun at him, prompting him to open fire.
Raja said Jones ran but turned and pointed his gun once more, forcing him to fire the second round of shots.
The officer was ultimately charged with manslaughter as well as attempted murder after prosecutors argued that Raja’s second volley was a conscious effort to kill Jones as he fled.
According to The Associated Press, Jones’ family marched out of the courthouse singing the gospel song “Victory is Mine.”