A federal judge has agreed to postpone a wrongful death suit against Nouman Raja while the former Palm Beach Garden police officer faces criminal charges in the October shooting death of stranded motorist Corey Jones.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Patrick M. Hunt signed an order Monday granting attorney Oscar Marrero’s request to stay a lawsuit filed by Jones’ father, Clinton Jones, Sr., against Raja, who faces manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted murder charges for shooting the 31-year-old during a roadside confrontation captured on a roadside assistance recorded line.
Prosecutors this summer charged Raja at the end f a months-long investigation and a grand jury session surrounding the deadly encounter that began when Raja drove up the off-ramp of Interstate 95 on PGA Boulevard in an unmarked van and approached Jones in plainclothes.
Raja later told investigators that he shot Jones because the professional drummer, who by day was a housing manager for the Delray Beach Housing Authority, came at him with a gun.
But prosecutors say they caught several inconsistencies in his statement, including the fact that Raja was overheard on a 911 call yelling at Jones to drop a gun when evidence in the case showed he had already fired the shot that killed Jones more than 30 seconds before he made the call.
The former Palm Beach Gardens police officer who shot 31-year old motorist Corey Jones while on a plainclothes detail last year has asked a federal judge to halt a wrongful death suit against him while he faces criminal charges in the case.
The request from Nouman Raja’s attorney Thursday comes nearly two months after Jones’ family filed a wrongful death suit against him, and three months after Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced a grand jury found Raja’s actions unjustified.
Aronberg, in turn, charged Raja with attempted murder and manslaughter by culpable negligence. A hearing in that case is set for Oct. 6.
Oscar Marrero, the Coral Gables attorney who represents Raja in his civil case, in his request Thursday said Raja won’t be able to get a fair trial in both the criminal and civil cases unless a federal judge postpones the wrongful death suit until the criminal case is over.
At issue, Marrero says, is the fact that while defendants in a criminal case have the right not to testify to protect themselves against self-incrimination, staying silent in a civil case can be used against a defendant and – in Raja’s case – result in a sure loss.
“Officer Raja faces the choice of defending the civil suit under the threat of significant personal exposure in the criminal case or exercising his Fifth Amendment right and losing the civil case in summary proceedings,” Marerro wrote.
Marerro in his nine-page motion Thursday said civil rights attorney Daryl Parks, who is representing Jones father in the wrongful death suit, plans to object to halting the case.
Clinton Jones, Sr. Sued both Raja and his former employers, the City of Palm Beach Gardens. Gardens attorneys back in July in federal court documents anticipated that Raja’s attorneys would ask to stay the civil proceedings until the criminal case was over.
By not allowing former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja to attend his children’s school functions as he awaits trial in the death of Corey Jones, Raja’s attorneys say the state is punishing Raja prematurely and making him the victim of the same “rush to judgement” that harms black men like the one he fatally shot.
Defense attorney Richard Lubin made the claims in court records Tuesday as part of an emphatic continuation of Raja’s quest to relax some restrictions of the house arrest that has been part of his $250,000 bond since last month, when prosecutors charged him with attempted murder and manslaughter by culpable negligence.
With words that appear to indicate that Raja fully intends to take his case to trial, Lubin fired back at prosecutors’ objections to the house arrest changes, and accused them of pandering to the emotions of many in the community who have called for Raja’s arrest since Jones’ October death.
“Too often in our history, due to societal pressure, there has been a rush to
judgment, often at the expense of minorities, such as Mr. Jones and Officer Raja,” Lubin said. “Thousands have been convicted only later to be exonerated after they had served 10, 20 or 30 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.”
The words come days after Chief Assistant State Attorneys Brian Fernandes took hard line to a request from Raja that he be able to attend school functions for his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
Attorneys on both sides of the case had previously agreed as part of Raja’s $250,000 bond and house arrest that he could continue to work at a tactical supply store, take his children to and from school and go to a barber once a month for a haircut.
Lubin asked for the additional time away from home Juny 12, two days before a hearing before Samantha Schosberg Feuer.
Fernandes fired back with what so far has been the most critical public words from the prosecutors’ office against Raja, saying Raja “killed a man he had sworn to protect.”
“Corey Jones never gets to participate in family functions again. Corey Jones never gets to attend school or camp performances for his potential future children, because he cannot have children,” Fernandes wrote.
Lubin on Tuesday called those comments inflammatory and asked Feuer to disregard them in making her ruling.
Jefer Negron was extradited from North Carolina last month after a grand jury indicted him in the 1990 slaying of Minerva Cantu.
Investigators say Negron entered Minerva Cantu’s home on the 400 block of North F Street on Nov 27, 1990 and suffocated her in the living room. Her husband returned home from work and found her dead and their 18-month-old son unharmed in his crib.
Although Negron was initially a suspect, Lake Worth Police never arrested and the case went cold. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s cold case unit reopened the investigation in June 2014 and, according to court records, analyzed DNA samples and talked to witnesses who linked Negron to the murder.
Court records show prosecutors filed a notice that they were seeking the death penalty on July 7. Lasst week, Negron’s attorney, Seth Lawrence LaVay, asked Circuit Judge Dina Keever to set the case for a bond hearing.
Nouman Raja, the former Palm Beach Gardens officer charged in the death of drummer Corey Jones, has entered a written plea of not guilty to one charge each of attempted murder and manslaughter by culpable negligence.
In doing so, the 38-year-old has waived an arraignment scheduled for Tuesday, which would have marked his first court appearance since the day after Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced his arrest June 1.
The next scheduled court date for Raja will be July 14 before Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer.
According to his arrest report, Raja, who was in plainclothes working a burglary detail, approached Jones in an unmarked police van while the drummer was on the line with roadside assistance trying to get his broken-down SUV towed from the exit ramp of Interstate 95 at PGA Blvd.
According to court records, Raja – who was released from jail early Friday after prosecutors announced his arrest Wednesday – will be arraigned June 14 at the Palm Beach County Jail. But after that, Feuer will preside over all hearings in the case, including an eventual trial or plea.
Raja, 38, was a Palm Beach Gardens Police officer working a plainclothes burglary detail when he shot Jones, a 31-year-old drummer whose car had broken down on Interstate 95 on his way home from a gig. He faces up to 15 years in prison on the manslaughter charge but up to life in prison if convicted on attempted first degree murder.
The case is easily the highest-profile matter Feuer has handled in her two years on the bench, although she has tried both a number of capital felony cases as well as cases against police officers accused of committing crimes on duty.
In September, less than a month before Jones’ death, Feuer presided over the trial of former Boynton Beach Police officer Stephen Maiorino, who a jury acquitted in the alleged 2014 rape of a 20-year-old woman while on duty.
Feuer was elected to a six year term in 2014, when she ran unopposed to replace Judge Sandra McSorley. Before taking the bench, she worked as a civil attorney and also as a civil prosecutor with Florida’s Attorney General.
The family of Corey Jones, the 31-year-old drummer and stranded motorist fatally shot by a police officer last year, will mark the seven-month anniversary of his death Wednesday with a rally at his burial site.
The rally will begin at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Boynton Beach Mausoleum, 1611 S. Seacrest Blvd. Jones family attorney Kweku Darfoor last week said the gathering will offer a chance for Jones’ cousins and other younger members of his family to publicly express their grief.
Last month, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced plans to allow a grand jury to decide whether Raja should face criminal charges – a move that dismayed family members and community leaders who had hoped Aronberg would skip that process and use his power to charge Raja directly.
Jones, 31, was on his way home from a gig on Oct. 18 when his car broke down on Interstate 95 at the southbound PGA Boulevard exit. Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer Nouman Raja, who was working a burglary prevention detail in plainclothes, drove up on Jones in an unmarked van and eventually shot him three times.
Raja, who was on probation with the department and has since been fired, said he shot Jones because he believed he was coming towards him with a gun.
Community leaders have cancelled a planned rally Thursday to protest Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s decision to refer to a grand jury the case of the police officer who shot Corey Jones.
The event, which was planned even before Aronberg announced last week that a grand jury panel will decide whether Nouman Raja will face criminal charges by the end of next month, was to come just days after the group Anonymous threatened Aronberg with calls and protests of their own unless he changed course.
Community leaders advertised the rally to be held at the Palm Beach State Attorneys office but announced online that it had been canceled. As of Thursday, no new date had been set.
Raja shot and killed Jones Oct. 18 after the now-fired officer drove up on him in the off-ramp of interstate 95 at PGA Boulevard. Jones’ SUV had broken down while he was on his way home from a professional drumming gig.
The State Attorney’s office and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies began immediately investigating the shooting, and the FBI joined the probe soon afterward.
Prosecutors could have concluded on their own that Raja should face no criminal charges but could have also skipped the grand jury process and charged him directly. Community leaders after Aronberg’s decision said they felt he should have charged Raja.
A Facebook post Friday from the group Anonymous Florida threatened to flood Aronberg’s phones and social media outlets with messages if he didn’t either resign or charge Raja by Wednesday.
Aronberg so far has declined to comment on the group’s ultimatum.
In an emotional press conference early Thursday, Corey Jones’ father, brother and sister reacted publicly to news that Palm Beach County state attorney Dave Aronberg will be bringing to a grand jury the case of the Palm Beach Gardens officer who shot and killed Jones last year.
The 31-year-old drummer’s father, Clinton Jones, Sr., told a group of reporters that he was holding Aronberg to assurances the top prosecutor gave him at a meeting Wednesday after announcing Nouman Raja’s case would be presented as part of the grand jury session that began in January and will end June 30. The father said Aronberg told him he believed the widely-criticized process would produce a just outcome in this case.
“It’s been a hard six months of waiting, waiting and waiting,” He was a good kid, and for something like this to have happened to him, I’m angry. I’m angry. It should never have happened.”
If the panel returns an indictment of any kind against Raja, it will be a switch from the outcome of grand juries that have weighed the cases of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown – young black men killed in confrontations with police officers who were later cleared of wrongdoing.
Family Attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters that while Jones’ case is going to the grand jury, the process is one that is still very much in prosecutors’ control, saying that “99.99999 percent of the time” a grand jury returns an indictment when a prosecutor wants one.
Though Aronberg told Jones’ family he would be involved in the grand jury process, two of his Chief Assistants, Brian Fernandes and Adrienne Ellis, will be the ones presenting evidence to the panel.
Jones’ sister, Melissa, said she was skeptical about the case going to a grand jury until the moment in their meeting with prosecutors where Ellis looked her in the eye and told her that she has a passion to pursue justice in the case.
“She said that without me asking,” Melissa Jones said. “And when I heard that, I said that’s what I needed to hear.”
Crump told reporters on Thursday details of the case he revealed exclusively to The Palm Beach Post late Wednesday, including the confirmation of the existence of an audio recording of the shooting. The recording was from a call Jones to AT&T Roadside Assistance minutes before Raja approached him in an unmarked van.
The call lasted 53 minutes, long enough to have potentially captured the confrontation, shooting and its aftermath.
As of Wednesday, Crump said, Jones’ family knew of two other important details based on their meetings with prosecutors.
First, although Crump stopped short of confirming that prosecutors told them that Raja claimed Jones shot at him, Crump said “we know that there were inconsistent statements made.”
“Hypothetically, if the allegation was that Corey Jones shot at him, we now know that is a bald-faced lie,” Crump said.
Secondly, Crump said, the family knows that Raja committed policy violations in the Oct. 18 shooting, when he approached Jones in plainclothes in an unmarked van as the drummer waited for a tow truck in the off-ramp of Interstate 95.
Despite prosecutors assurances, Crump – who has previously represented the family of slain teen Trayvon Martin – said on Wednesday that he would have been much more optimistic if Aronberg had exercised his power to file charges directly against Raja.
Raja’s attorney, Richard Lubin, said in a brief statement Wednesday that he and his client were “looking forward” to the grand jury process.
Jones’ brother, former NFL wide receiver Clinton “CJ” Jones, had hoped Aronberg would have directly filed charges against Raja. Absent that possibility, he said Thursday, his desire was simple:
“If (the officer) did something wrong, we just want him to pay consequences,” he said.
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Lulu Ramadan contributed to this report.