WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Opening statements and witness testimony began Tuesday in the trial of a fired South Florida police officer charged in the 2015 fatal shooting of a stranded black motorist.
The four-man, two-woman jury listened as defense attorney Scott Richardson explained that Nouman Raja shot Corey Jones because the former Palm Beach Gardens police officer feared for his life.
"Mr. Jones' death was not the result of any criminal act committed by Nouman Raja," Richardson said. "It was a perfect storm that turned deadly when Mr. Jones pointed that handgun and Mr. Raja, in defending himself, fired his handgun."
The former officer struggled to keep his eyes open during his attorney's opening statement, but Raja was otherwise stoic the rest of the day as the state began questioning witnesses from people in a hotel nearby to police officers who were called to the scene.
"I heard three gunshots, a pause and then three more," James Ogle, who was staying in a hotel nearby, testified.
Jones, 31, was stranded on the side of an Interstate 95 exit ramp in Palm Beach Gardens after his SUV had broken down when he was shot and killed by Raja on Oct. 18, 2015.
"We're confident that you're going to agree on the one verdict for which all of the evidence will support, and that's a verdict of finding him guilty as charged of being a reckless killer and for trying to murder Corey Jones," assistant state attorney Brian Fernandes said earlier during his opening statements.
The first witness for the prosecution was Matthew Giles-Huntsberger, who was in a band with Jones and had been with him hours earlier during a performance. Giles-Huntsberger testified that he and Jones had smoked marijuana together during a break.
Defense attorneys are trying to convince the jury that Raja, 41, feared for his life because Jones, who had a concealed weapons permit, pulled a gun.
Prosecutors claim Raja instigated the confrontation because he was working undercover and never identified himself as a police officer, leading Jones to believe that Raja was a robber.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Raja was on duty at the time of the shooting but not wearing clothes that identified him as an officer.
"There had been a problem with late night auto burglaries in Palm Beach Gardens," the affidavit said. "Raja was assigned to surveillance patrol in large parking lots with the goal of locating the burglary suspects."
Raja had been told by his supervisor to wear his tactical vest with police markings on it while working the assignment, but his vest and police radio were on the van's floorboard next to the driver's seat when the shooting occurred, the affidavit said.
The officer used his personal cellphone to call 911 after the shooting, providing his version of what happened.
"(Jones) had a silver handgun in his right hand," Raja said. "I came out. I saw him come out with a handgun. I gave him commands. I identified myself and he turned, pointed the gun at me and started running. I shot him."
Madeleine Tolliver, the roadside assistance dispatcher who was on the phone with Jones during the shooting, became emotional on the stand when she recounted what happened.
"He was calm. He didn't even seem irritated, nothing like that," Tolliver said. "So it was just a standard call."
Police arrived and began their investigation, searching for the gun that Raja claimed Jones was carrying at the time of the shooting. Police used K-9 officers to search the tall grass near the PGA Boulevard exit ramp and found the gun about 74 feet from the back of Jones' SUV.
Jones was found about 192 feet from the back of his vehicle, the affidavit said. Paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead at 3:32 a.m.
Raja used his personal gun to shoot Jones because his department-issued gun was in its holster inside the van, the affidavit said.
Three of the six shots that were fired struck Jones -- one in each arm and another to his chest, the affidavit said. Dr. Gertrude Juste, an associate medical examiner in Palm Beach County, performed an autopsy and determined that the gunshot wound to Jones' chest was what caused his death.
Despite his more than seven years of experience as a police officer, Raja acted "in a tactically unsound, unsafe and grossly negligent manner," the affidavit said.
Raja told police that Jones threw his gun into the grass, but the investigation revealed that Raja "continued to fire at Jones as he ran away," the affidavit said. Juste determined that the shot that struck Jones' right arm was fired from the rear.
"There is no question that Jones ran away from Raja," the affidavit said.
Investigators also determined that Jones' gun was loaded, but the chamber of the pistol was locked and the safety was on, the affidavit said.
Raja, 41, has been on house arrest since his arrest in June 2016. He could face life in prison if convicted.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
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