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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida police officer is not a flight risk and should be granted bail while his conviction for killing a stranded black motorist is appealed, his attorney told a judge Wednesday, but prosecutors strongly disputed his contention.
Fired Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja abided by all rules while under house arrest before his trial for the 2015 shooting of Corey Jones and has surrendered his passport, attorney Richard Lubin told Circuit Judge Richard Marx. The judge sentenced Raja, 41, to 25 years in prison last month after he was convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder. Raja was not present at Wednesday's hearing and is being held near Miami at a prison for new inmates who haven't been assigned to a long-term facility.
"He is absolutely not a flight risk," Lubin said. He said Raja's attorneys believe they have a strong chance of getting his convictions overturned. They argue that Marx should have allowed them to tell the jury that the shooting was a justifiable use of force by a police officer.
Prosecutor Brian Fernandes told Marx that Raja abided by the house arrest rules before trial only because he thought he would be acquitted. He said Raja has "extensive contacts" in South Asia where his family is from and it would be difficult to find and extradite him if he fled.
He said Raja's best chance for a successful appeal is that he couldn't be convicted of both attempted murder and manslaughter. If one conviction is thrown out that is irrelevant for sentencing purposes, Fernandes said, as Raja received 25 years on each count to be served simultaneously.
"He faces a quarter century, day for day, in the Department of Corrections. For an individual who is reaching into the midpoint of his life, the extent of that sentence and the severity of that sentence ... increases the risk of flight," Fernandes said.
Kattie Jones, Jones' stepmother, also asked Marx to keep Raja locked up.
"The Jones family has waited a very long time, three and a half years, to see Nouman Raja sentenced for the heinous crime he committed," she said, with Jones' father, Clinton Jones Sr., standing beside her. "He is desperate and looking for any opportunity to run. To release him now would mean being an accessory to his crime."
Marx said he was offended by being called an accessory if he sides with Raja, but added it would not affect his decision. He said he would announce it by Friday.
Raja was wearing plain clothes for an auto burglary investigation team when he spotted Jones' SUV at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2015. Jones was headed home from a nightclub performance by his reggae band when his vehicle stalled on a dark highway off-ramp. He had a concealed-weapons permit and carried a handgun, purchased days earlier to protect his $10,000 drum set, which was in the SUV.
Raja, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, drove an unmarked van the wrong way up an off ramp within feet of the SUV.
He told investigators hours after the shooting that he said "Police, can I help you?" as Jones jumped from the SUV. He also told them Jones leapt backward and pointed his gun, forcing him to fire. Raja said Jones ran but turned and again pointed his gun, forcing him to fire the second volley.
What Raja didn't know was that Jones had been talking to a tow-truck dispatcher on a recorded line. That recording shows Jones saying "Huh?" as his door opens. Raja yells, "You good?" Jones says he is. Raja replies twice, "Really?" with Jones replying "Yeah."
Suddenly, Raja shouts at Jones to raise his hands, using an expletive. Jones replies, "Hold on!" and Raja repeats his demand.
There is a volley of three shots, a 10-second pause, and then three more shots. One of the bullets pierced the Jones' heart. He was also hit in both arms.
Prosecutors said Raja never identified himself as an officer and acted so aggressively Jones thought he was about to be carjacked or killed, causing him to pull his gun and run. Raja's supervisor testified the officer had been told to don a police vest if he approached a civilian. He didn't, nor did he pull his badge.
Prosecutors charged Raja with manslaughter, saying his actions created the confrontation and showed "culpable negligence." They also charged him with attempted murder, saying no matter which of Raja's six shots killed Jones, the second volley was a conscious effort to kill the fleeing man.
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