National News

Florida Judge Rules Officer Who Used ‘Stand Your Ground’ Defense Must Go to Trial

Posted June 1, 2018 10:32 p.m. EDT

A Florida judge on Friday denied a request from a former police officer who fatally shot a driver to have criminal charges against him thrown out under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, calling his testimony “unreliable and not credible.”

The defendant, Nouman K. Raja, was on duty in plain clothes early on Oct. 18, 2015, when he approached a vehicle that he said he thought was abandoned on the side of an interstate. His brief exchange with the man he found inside the vehicle, Corey Jones, was recorded on a phone call Jones had placed seeking roadside assistance.

At the time of the deadly encounter, Jones, a 31-year-old musician and housing inspector, had a legally purchased handgun with him. Raja has claimed that Jones, who was black, pointed it at him, but prosecutors say Raja fired shots even as Jones fled. Within moments of making his approach, Raja had fired six shots and struck Jones three times, killing him.

Less than a month later, Raja was fired from the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department. He was charged in June 2016 with manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.

In a 27-page ruling Friday denying a motion by the defense to dismiss the case against Raja, the judge, Samantha Schosberg Feuer of Florida’s 15th Judicial Circuit Court, cited numerous inconsistencies between Raja’s testimony and the physical evidence.

Pointing to audio captured on Jones’ roadside assistance call, Feuer indicated skepticism that Raja had clearly identified himself as a police officer — or that he had identified himself at all.

Her ruling noted that a 911 call Raja said he had placed while pursuing Jones — and before firing a second volley — was in fact placed some 33 seconds after he had fired the second volley. She also wrote that the position of shell casings found at the scene was at odds with Raja’s description of each volley of shots.

One of the judge’s observations appeared to hold particular relevance for a defendant claiming defense under the Stand Your Ground law, which removes the obligation to retreat if a person feels threatened and frees the person to use deadly force “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary” to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm.”

“Although the witnesses were unable to determine when each of the shots were fired or the order in which Jones received the wounds,” Feuer wrote, “two of the three wounds entered through the back side of Jones, consistent with someone who is running away from the shooter.”

Although she denied Raja’s motion to dismiss the case on the basis of Stand Your Ground, the judge said he “remains free to use the defense at trial.”

Richard G. Lubin, a lawyer for Raja, did not respond to phone calls Friday evening, but The Associated Press reported that he planned to file an appeal next week — a move almost certain to delay the trial’s scheduled start, in July.

The Office of the State Attorney, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the ruling Friday.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law became a national flashpoint after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Although the law ultimately did not figure into the defense strategy pursued by Zimmerman’s legal team, it inspired significant protests across the United States.