The main reason ex-cop Nouman Raja was found guilty Thursday — let alone even charged in the fatal shooting of stranded motorist Corey Jones — was an extraordinary audio recording.
This case, joining a series of police killings of young black men across the country, turned on the discovery of Jones’ recorded call for a tow truck that early morning of Oct. 18, 2015, on a highway off-ramp.
Played repeatedly in Raja’s eight-day trial, it allowed the jury to hear the tragic 3:15 a.m. encounter between the Palm Beach Gardens police officer and the beloved musician and family man, ending in six gunshots.
Without the recording, prosecutors and legal experts say Raja likely would have been cleared long ago rather than convicted on two charges: manslaughter by culpable negligence while armed, and attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.
“If it was not for the tape recording, then this police officer would have gotten away with murder,” said Jones’ family attorney Ben Crump. “How many times have police officers murdered black men and there was no tape recording?”
As a result, Raja became the first police officer convicted in an on-duty shooting in Florida in the last 30 years.
The manslaughter count is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The attempted murder count, for the bullets that missed Jones, is punishable by 25 years to life.
Raja, 41, and a married father of children ages 7 and 9, will be sentenced by Circuit Judge Joseph Marx on April 26.
Raja had no idea about the recording when he spoke on video to investigators hours after the shooting. He then insisted he identified himself as a cop and was threatened by Jones at gunpoint in the Interstate 95 southbound exit-ramp at PGA Boulevard.
Yet nowhere on the roadside assistance call can Raja — dressed in plain clothes after exiting his unmarked white van — be heard announcing he was a cop. The call also proved that Raja waited 33 seconds after his final shot to call 911, when he spoke to an operator as if Jones was still alive and armed.
“What was the difference in this case? I honestly believe it was the tape,” Crump told reporters. “We’ll never know exactly what [the jurors] based their verdict on but I think it’s safe to say the family believes it was because of what we heard on that tape.”
This audio clearly crippled Raja’s claim that he acted in self-defense after seeing Jones point a gun. Prosecutors slammed Raja as a total liar.
“But for that call, I don’t know that we would be at this stage,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Adrienne Ellis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel after the verdict. “The call, even though it was an audio and not a video, really was a real-time account of what happened that night and it led us to where we are today.”
The all-white jury of four men and two women from Palm Beach County reached a verdict after nearly five hours of deliberations across two days. The panel asked to hear the roadside assistance call again, along with Raja’s sworn statements for comparison, before reaching a unanimous decision.
“The jurors and alternates in this case worked very hard and served honorably, listening diligently to the facts and the evidence and doing our very best to apply the law fairly and justly,” said jury foreman Randal Martin. “Today, my heart breaks for both the Jones and Raja families. They have suffered greatly because of that terrible night, and I pray that God would bless and comfort them.”
Martin, a certified public accountant who runs a West Palm Beach-area private school, also asked for privacy for the jurors who “now wish to return to our families and careers without further public scrutiny.”
Wearing a gray suit with a blue tie, Raja tilted his head down when the verdict was announced. Moments later, he was handcuffed and taken by deputies out of the courtroom.
With his $250,000 house arrest bond revoked, Raja will be at Palm Beach County Jail until he receives his punishment.
Reaction ranged from tears of joy and singing by the Jones family on the courthouse steps, to anger from the police union, to relief from prosecutors, to praise from legislators, to disappointment from Raja’s defenders.
Clinton Jones Sr. told reporters that after the verdict he joined his wife, Kattie, and other close relatives at his son Corey’s burial site in Boynton Beach.
“Corey, son, we did it,” he said at the grave.
From Corey’s maternal side, his aunt and godmother Sheila Banks called it, “Sweet, sweet justice.”
State Attorney Dave Aronberg paid tribute to the resolve of the Jones and Banks families, and thanked his prosecution team of Adrienne Ellis, Brian Fernandes and Alexcia Cox for achieving “a measure of justice and closure.”
“This was a true tragedy, it was an open wound in our community for the last three and a half years and hopefully now we can begin healing,” Aronberg said at a news conference. “Ultimately this is a bittersweet day because nothing can bring Corey Jones back.”
Defense attorneys Richard Lubin, Scott Richardson and Rick King later released a statement: “The entire defense team is devastated by the jury’s verdict. We believe in Nouman Raja’s innocence and we will continue to stand behind him as his case is reviewed by the judge and, if necessary, the appellate courts.”
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, said the union remains 100 percent behind Raja and will continue to pay his legal expenses. Raja was fired less than a month after the shooting.
“It’s a sad day when a law enforcement officer who’s in fear for their life can’t defend themselves when a person pulls a gun on them,” said Kazanjian, who attended parts of the trial.
But three Democratic members of Congress, Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch, cheered the outcome. They wrote, “We hope that this decision brings comfort to his family and friends in knowing that justice has been served. The tragic shooting that led to Corey’s death shook our community and broke our hearts.”
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who in 2016 co-sponsored legislation to regulate police body cameras, said he is grateful to prosecutors.
“Today, justice was done in Palm Beach County,” Jones wrote in a statement. “Corey Jones had his life cut short. Unlike so many others, his killer is not walking away free.”
While race had no direct connection to the evidence in the case, it still became a talking point. The defense told the jury it was not “a racial killing,” but the prosecutors slipped in a few references such as how “a black man on the side of the road” deserves justice.
Those sentiments were shared outside the courtroom, by civil lawyers for Jones’ dad in a pending wrongful death civil lawsuit in federal court against Raja and the city of Palm Beach Gardens.
Crump said the guilty verdict is a promising development in a battle against racial injustice and Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law. Last year, Raja unsuccessfully tried to get the charges tossed under that law.
“This verdict from this all-white jury gives us hope for equal justice in America,” Crump said, listing the names of black men killed in confrontations with police. “This may help prevent another police officer somewhere in America from killing a black man and being able to lie about it.”
In their closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors argued Raja must held accountable for his reckless actions that caused the death of the drummer whose Hyundai Santa Fe broke down after a Saturday night gig with his band.
The prosecution called Raja a “disgrace” to all good cops, even accusing him of “staging” parts of the confrontation for investigators and trying to hide the fact that he hunted Jones like an animal.
“The noble profession of law enforcement officers should not be tarnished by any one individual,” Aronberg said.
The defense argued that Raja told the truth, only confusing some facts because of the stress of the situation.
“The prosecution would have you think [Raja] was out hunting … somebody to kill, that this man was out there on the prowl hoping that he would kill someone,” Lubin said.
Jones was hit by bullets in each arm, along with a fatal shot that tore through his heart and both lungs. Jones’ licensed .380-caliber handgun gun, which prosecutors said he only had for protection, was found 41 yards from his body.
Raja declined to testify in the trial, but the jury twice watched a video of Raja providing a voluntary statement to investigators, called a walk-through, about four and a half hours after the shooting. “I identified myself as a police officer … and this guy’s tryin’ to kill me and I was, and I, I didn’t wanna die,” Raja said of the reasons he used his .40-caliber Glock pistol.
More than a dozen members of the Jones family attended every minute of the trial, fighting through tears as Corey’s voice on the roadside assistance call echoed in the courtroom. There were his final words: “Hold on! Hold on!”
And with the verdict they could finally exhale.
“It seemed like a rainfall,” Corey’s older sister, Chanda Peoples, said later. “A flood of joy. … I just felt like this was such a wonderful victory for my family.”