The retrial of the multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Palm Beach County sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer in the 2012 shooting death of Seth Adams will be held before a different federal judge as early as July 10.
In an order signed Monday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley, who presided over the trial that ended last month with a hung jury, assigned the case to his colleague, federal Judge Donald Middlebrooks.
Hurley, who reportedly planned to retire before the summer, had scheduled the second trial to begin Oct. 10. But, in the order, he said attorneys for Adams’ parents and the sheriff’s office indicated they wanted it to be held sooner. Both sides agreed to a July 10 start, he said.
Middlebrooks agreed to hear the case, Hurley wrote. He told the attorneys to consult with Middlebrooks’ staff to see if the trial could be held sooner.
After a month-long trial, the nine jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict about whether Custer used excessive force when he fatally shot the 23-year-old as Adams returned to A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where he lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.
Attorney Wallace McCall, who talked to some of the jurors after the trial, said he was told there was one hold out. He had sought $10 million to $20 million for Lydia and Richard Adams, claiming Custer lied when he said Adams attacked him and the sheriff’s office helped him cover up the truth.
The sheriff’s office has said that Custer, who was working undercover on the night of the shooting, was in fear for his life.
Among the more than 3,000 pages of documents and 50 audio and video recordings in Nouman Raja’s criminal case released Tuesday, the interview more than a year ago with Adnan Raja provides the first insight into the Raja family’s sadness over the loss of life, love for each other and distrust of others in the aftermath of the shooting.
“I think I’m a good guy, he’s 10 times better than I am,” Adnan Raja, a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy, said of his only brother. “He’ll give you the shirt off his back, and for the media to portray him the way that they did, I don’t think that was right.”
In his interview with FBI agents, Adnan Raja, formerly a detective with the Riviera Beach Police Department, candidly said his brother’s experience had him thinking about leaving the law enforcement profession.
The undated interview came at least several months before Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg charged Nouman Raja with manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted murder.
Adnan Raja himself would become the subject of news two months after his brother’s shooting of Corey Jones, when he became one of five deputies to involved in the shooting of 48-year-old Olie James Goad in a business plaza on Congress Avenue. Goad survived.
But Adnan Raja’s conversation with police about his brother revealed, perhaps for the first time publicly that Adnan Raja himself was nearly involved in a shooting less than hours after his brother’s 3 a.m. confrontation with Jones, 31.
Adnan Raja said he had a pair of robbery suspects pinned down at 4 a.m., just about the time he received a text from one of his brother’s colleagues at the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department. Nouman had been involved in a shooting, the text read. He was OK.
“I was stressed because now, it’s kinda odd because I just almost had someone at gunpoint, and now my brother … til I talk to him I don’t know he’s OK,” Adnan Raja said. “Plus, my mother’s old, I don’t want anything to stress her out.”
The older brother says he remembers reaching out to Nouman Raja, either by phone or text, shortly after he found out. They spoke briefly, just long enough for Adnan Raja to hear his brother was fine.
Their conversations in the days afterward contained little more than basic information, Adnan Raja said. They didn’t trust anyone, he said, and were convinced that someone inside the investigation was talking to the media.
When Adnan Raja wanted to come and visit his brother a couple of days later, Nouman Raja told him not to come because there were too many reporters outside his house. Adnan Raja told his little brother not to go grocery shopping — he would do it for him.
Many things about the aftermath of the shooting frustrated Adnan Raja –aside from public perception.
One was his belief that someone — another officer, he was convinced — had leaked a “word for word” rendition of Nouman’s Raja’s crime scene walk-through with investigators in the aftermath of the shooting.
Prosecutors publicly released an audio recording and transcript of that interview Tuesday. In it, several of Nouman Raja’s statements directly contradict Raja’s own call to 911 after the shooting as well as an audio recording from Jones’ call to a roadside assistance line, which captured his encounter with Raja.
For Adnan Raja, whose assessment of police work in the south was “no one has each other’s back,” the belief that a fellow officer was immediately leaking information about his brother’s case “I thought that below the belt,” he said.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Nouman Raja in November 2015, less than a month after the shooting of Jones, a drummer on his way home from a gig when his SUV broke down on the Interstate 95 southbound exit at PGA Boulevard. By then he had spent eight years as an officer in Atlantis but was only seven months into his job with Gardens.
“I know he was probationary, but hey, c’mon, man, at least, you know, whatever,” Adnan Raja said, adding that he thought the fair thing to do would have been to let the investigation run its course. “We’re a little bit upset, but, we’re not going to talk about it.”
Adnan Raja in the conversation brought up Darren Wilson, the now former Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, saying he felt Wilson didn’t get “fair, due process.”
In his brother’s case, Adnan Raja said, he had been portrayed as a knife-wielding bully when the truth was, he said, Nouman Raja was against violence. There was an immediate push to make his brother’s case racial, he said, “but they can’t do that.”
Jones is black and Raja is of Pakistani descent.
The brothers, Adnan Raja said, almost immediately decided to close ranks. Nouman Raja wasn’t talking to any relatives except for his brother and the occasional call to their mother, Adnan Raja said. Neither one of them was talking about the case, period, he said, because his brother “already has enough stress as it is.”
Their focus, Adnan Raja said, was to get his brother a job in another profession. Nouman Raja works in a tactical supply store that sells vests and other equipment primarily to law enforcement officers.
Adnan Raja still works for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
He said he took three days off after the shooting. But at some point shortly afterward, while working a detail at a Wal-Mart shopping center, Adnan Raja said someone looked at his name tag, recognized his last name and started moving toward him.
“And I was just like listen, I suggest you keep on walking,” Adnan Raja recalled.
He said both he and his brother got a number of spoof calls after the shooting, so he stopped answering his phone unless it was a number he recognized. Several calls, including one from a number Adnan Raja believed to be his brother’s former police chief in Atlantis, went unanswered.
In the nearly 15-minute interview with the agents, Adnan Raja painted a grim picture of law enforcement work. Face to face in some encounters, Adnan Raja said, an officer only has two choices.
“You shoot somebody if they point a gun at you, or do you take the bullet and hope you have a lot of life insurance?” he said.
Daphne Felisma, wife of accused Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy Frantz Felisma, collapsed outside a federal courtroom in West Palm Beach Thursday after a judge denied bond for her husband.
Paramedics took her to the hospital after she fainted. Her husband, who faces identity theft charges, should remain behind bars because of the serious nature of the offense and, with family in Haiti, he is a flight risk, U.S. Magistrate James Hopkins said at the conclusion of a roughly two-hour hearing.
“I can’t imagine a much more serious offense than this,” Hopkins said. “For a law enforcement officer to be selling his position and selling law enforcement information to a known fraudster is one of the most serious crimes I can possibly imagine.”
Daphne Felisma started sobbing after Hopkins announced his decision. She tried to reach her husband as U.S. marshals led him out of the courtroom. Grabbed by marshals, she was ushered into the hallway where she collapsed. About 50 friends and family members, many crying, were also ordered from the courtroom.
Frantz Felisma, 42, of Boynton Beach, is accused of using law enforcement databases to get personal information about at least 50 people who owned expensive cars and selling the information to Kesner Joaseus, federal prosecutors said. Joaseus, who pleaded guilty to identity theft and other fraud charges in August, reported Felisma’s involvement to police. Joaseus set up credit card and bank accounts over 18 months, stealing an estimated $250,000, prosecutors said.
Joaseus told prosecutors he offered to pay Felisma $10,000 a month for the information but it is unclear how much he was paid or where the money went, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Jorgensen said. Felisma’s bank account showed about $14,000 in unusual transactions from January 2013 until June 2014, she told Hopkins.
“Criminals don’t necessarily deposit money from a criminal enterprise,” she said.
Knowing Joaseus had been convicted of mortgage fraud, Felisma claimed he was investigating his activities. “I’m going to nail him,” his attorney Jason Kreiss said he told investigators.
Kreiss said Felisma maintains his innocence and is likely to ask a federal judge to overturn Hopkins’ decision to deny him bond. The appeals process could take more than two weeks.
UPDATE 2:48 p.m.: It took a Palm Beach County jury just over two hours Tuesday to decide in favor of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office in a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who said she was fired because she had cancer.
The verdict comes nearly two weeks after the trial in Angela Miller’s case began, featuring testimony from current Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and three of his predecessors, along with several others in the legal community who worked with Miller during her 16-year stint at the office.
Attorneys for Aronberg’s office told jurors that all Aronberg did was exercise his right not to retain Miller when he took office, a decision that had already been in the making before Miller’s diagnosis in August 2012.
“We’re pleased with the jury’s verdict, and we feel justice has been served,” Aronberg said through spokesman Mike Edmondson after the verdict Tuesday.
Miller, a mother of two who tearfully told jurors on the witness stand that she was still undergoing chemotherapy when she learned she was being let go, said she was glad she pursued the case despite the outcome.
“It was critical for me to tell my story, because this is happening to someone else right now, as we’re talking, someone is being terminated right now because they’re sick. And it’s a story that has to be told,” Miller said.
Miller said she will be talking to her attorneys, Cathleen Scott and Lindsey Wagner, to decide whether she will appeal the case. Five months after she wasn’t retained at the state attorney’s office, Miller got a job at the Boca Raton commercial litigation firm Sachs, Sax and Caplan, where she remains today.
Defense attorney James Williams reminded jurors Tuesday that despite Aronberg’s decision not to keep Miller, he encouraged a partner the firm to hire her.
ORIGINAL POST: Four women and two men have now begun deciding whether Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg wrongfully terminated former Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller in 2012 because she had cancer.
Lawyers of both sides of Miller’s lawsuit against her former employers are now delivering their closing arguments, ending the trial that began earlier this month and featured testimony from top politicians, judges and lawyers in Palm Beach County’s legal community.
Miller’s attorney, Cathleen Scott, reminded jurors that all who testified during the trial characterized Miller as a great trial attorney. Miller, diagnosed with cancer in August 2012, found out in December that Aronberg would not be swearing her in as one of his assistants when he took office in January 2013.
Scott balked at suggestions from Aronberg’s testimony while on the witness stand last week comparing his takeover at the state attorney’s’ office to a coach taking over a sports team and making changes to the coaching staff.
“This isn’t football, this isn’t baseball. This is somebody’s life,” Scott said, later adding: “The law doesn’t allow it, and neither should you.”
Defense attorney James Williams’ position to jurors has been that Miller wasn’t asked to stay on with Aronberg in spite of her cancer diagnosis, not because of it.
He reiterated concerns Aronberg and others said they had about Miller’s actions outside of the courtroom, including allegations that she berated a juror in 2010 for voting to acquit a murder suspect and broke the law in the summer of 2012 when asked an investigator to search an FBI database for personal reasons.
Williams told jurors that they would have to believe 11 lawyers, a doctor and three law enforcement officers would have had to have participated in an orchestrated cover-up in order for jurors to believe Miller’s version of why she was let go.
Though Miller’s cancer diagnosis was tragic, Williams said, her anger with Aronberg and the state attorney’s office is misplaced.
“It can’t be, ‘I can do anything I want, and now because I’m sick, they can’t do anything to me. That’s not how the law works,” Williams said, adding later: “To do it that way would encourage a lot of bad behavior.”
The last arguments jurors heard Tuesday was from Scott, who had harsh criticism for Aronberg and accused him of being more concerned with placating “his defense attorney donor buddies” than with prosecuting criminal defendants.
Scott compared Miller to Brian Fernandes, a chief assistant state attorney under Aronberg who as a statewide prosecutor was responsible for handling gang cases and other violent crimes.
“He’s a tough prosecutor, just like Ms. Miller,” Scott said. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get sick.”
Circuit Judge Donald Hafele sent jurors sback to deliberate at noon.
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.
Nouman Raja, arrested last month on manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted murder charges in the 31-year-old drummer’s October shooting death, did not attend Thursday’s hearing. Though he remains free on a $250,000 bond that includes house arrest, court records show his attorneys on Tuesday waived his appearance at the hearing.
Defense attorney Richard Lubin had also filed a request for Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer to relax the conditions of his house arrest to allow him to attend some of his children’s social functions.
But Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes before Thursday’s hearing filed an opposition to the request and asked for a full hearing on the matter.
“Corey Jones never gets to participate in family functions again,” Fernandes wrote. Corey Jones never gets to attend school or camp performances for his potential future children, because he cannot have children.”
“Such a request by the defense denigrates the true purpose of this prosecution – to achieve justice for the victim; to achieve justice for Corey Jones,” Fernandes added.
Feuer asked Lubin about the request at Thursday’s brief hearing. Lubin said he wanted to table the discussion for now, and on his way out of court declined to say whether he will pursue it later.
In the meantime, Lubin told Feuer that he’s just begun poring over the list of dozens of witnesses and other early information he’s received in the case. He doesn’t anticipate he’ll be ready to conduct witness interviews on Raja’s behalf until months from now, he told Feuer, adding that he expects he’ll need to find expert witnesses for Raja’s defense.
Feuer set the next hearing date in the case for Oct. 6.
Late last month, Feuer signed off on changes to Nouman Raja’s house arrest, allowing the 38-year-old to take his two children to predetermined locations and stop to get gas in Boynton Beach on his way to and from work. Feuer also allowed Raja a monthly visit to the barber, although he will have to coordinate the time and location with house arrest officials.
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.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to pay $15,000 for not immediately turning over GPS data to show where various officers were when Loxahatchee Groves resident Seth Adams was shot dead by Sgt. Michael Custer four years ago.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley is still deciding whether to sanction the agency for not preserving the cell phone Custer was using on May 17, 2012 when he shot the unarmed 24-year-old as Adams was returning to his family’s garden center on A Road, where he also lived.
After a hearing in March, Hurley said he was torn between whether the agency acted in bad faith or was “extraordinarily negligent” when it lost the phone, knowing it had to be preserved. He said he needed time to do additional research.
While the agency also destroyed Custer’s laptop, Hurley ruled that it was not done intentionally. Rather, he said, it was destroyed because the officer was in line for a new computer. Old laptops are routinely thrown out, sheriff’s officials testified.
Hurley said McCall was clearly entitled to the GPS data to show the locations of other officers who were working with Custer the night Adams was shot. After McCall argued that the agency had repeatedly denied the records existed when it was clear they did, Hurley agreed McCall should be paid for the extra time he spent trying to get them.
In court papers, the sheriff’s office and McCall agreed to the $15,000 payment.
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.
Claiming lawyers representing Dontrell Stephens improperly played the race card to win a $22.4 million verdict against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Deputy Adams Lin, sheriff’s attorneys on Monday will ask a federal magistrate to reduce the award.
Throughout the trial that ended in February, Stephens’s lawyers repeatedly implied that the 2013 shooting that left the 22-year-old West Palm Beach man paralyzed from the waist down was racially motivated, sheriff’s attorneys Summer Barranco and Richard Giuffreda contend in court papers.
Stephens’ attorneys made reference to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which grew in response to police shootings of black men throughout the nation, Barranco wrote.
“It was clear that (Stephens’) counsel wanted the jury to see this case as another one of those egregious cases they had seen in the media where a cop shot an unarmed young black man for no good reason,” she wrote.
The racial overtones inflamed the jury, spurring them to act on passion and prejudice rather than reason, she claims.
Further, she wrote, while Stephens may be paralyzed, he is not bed-ridden nor does he require round-the-clock nursing care.
“The testimony in this case showed … he was actually able to do quite a lot for himself,” Barranco wrote, pointing out that he can transfer himself from a bed to a wheelchair and can wheel himself around without assistance.
Attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Stephens, scoffed at Barranco’s attempt to put what he called “a positive spin” on Stephens’ injuries. “The cold harsh reality is that a healthy, active 20-year-old man was sentenced to over half a century in a wheelchair, unable to move from the waist down,” he wrote.
Lin shot Stephens seconds after stopping him for riding his bicycle erratically in morning rush-hour traffic on Haverhill Road. The shooting was captured on a video camera on Lin’s dashboard.
In closing arguments, Scarola told jurors that “Dontrell Stephens’ life mattered.” If Barranco or Giuffreda didn’t like it, they should have objected at the time, he wrote.
The verdict was rendered by a “intelligent, attentive and diligent jury that was fully qualified to assess the damages sustained by Dontrell Stephens,” he wrote. Contrary to Barranco’s assertions, he insisted they weren’t driven by passion or prejudice but powerful facts.
The hearing before U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer is to begin at 2 p.m.