WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A grand jury will decide whether a former police officer should face charges in the fatal shooting of a legally armed black musician who was waiting on the side of the road for a tow truck, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said during a news conference that his office would continue its investigation of former Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja in the death of Corey Jones and present the case to a grand jury. Aronberg's other options were to charge Raja or clear him.
Citing state law, he said he could not discuss what evidence investigators have collected.
"The goal is to do justice," Aronberg said. "We have been as transparent as we are allowed to be under the rules."
Jones had left a gig before dawn Oct. 18 when his SUV broke down on an Interstate 95 off ramp in Palm Beach Gardens. A fellow band member tried unsuccessfully to jumpstart the vehicle, then left Jones, 31, to await a tow truck along a dark interstate ramp in the affluent city north of West Palm Beach. Jones, who was also a housing inspector, had a concealed weapons permit and was legally allowed to carry the gun. His family said he carried a gun because he was hauling expensive equipment.
At the time, Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp said Raja, who is of South Asian ancestry, had been investigating local burglaries. He stopped to check out what he thought was an abandoned vehicle and "was suddenly confronted by an armed subject."
Raja was in an unmarked car. He was on-duty but not in uniform.
Raja fired six shots at Jones, hitting him three times, officials said. Police later recovered a .38-caliber handgun at the scene, which Jones had bought a week earlier.
His family and lawyers have insisted he would not have had his gun out as Raja approached if he had identified himself as a police officer or shown a badge.
"While we are leery of the grand jury process, we will remain vigilant and peacefully demand greater accountability and transparency from law enforcement," the family said in a statement.
Palm Beach Gardens fired Raja after the shooting. He had only been on the force six months after seven years with a neighboring department. The chief decided that he had failed his probationary period.
Stepp told a rally Wednesday outside Palm Beach Gardens City Hall that the department has enacted a number of changes since the shooting ranging from officer use of body cameras to improved training.
"The death of Corey Jones should not have happened that morning," Stepp told the two dozen Jones family members and supporters. "We can't bring Corey Jones back and for that I am truly sorry. But we can use his tragic death as a catalyst for change."
State Attorney's Office investigators have already interviewed 230 people, many of whom were staying at hotels along the busy interstate, Aronberg said. He added that his office has remained in contact with Jones' family and Raja's attorney, who issued statement.
"Now that the decision to have a grand jury consider the case has been made, we look forward to participating in that process," Raja's attorney Richard Lubin said.
There have been two other police-involved shootings presented to the grand jury since Aronberg, a Democrat, took office in 2012. The grand jury found that both of those were justified, said assistant state attorney Brian Fernandes.
He said it is a myth that prosecutors, if they push hard enough, can get a grand jury to indict since prosecutors have almost complete control of the evidence and witnesses presented. The grand jury has 21 members and it takes 12 votes to get an indictment.
"That comes from people who have never presented before a grand jury," Fernandes said. "It's not that easy."
But attorney David Weinstein, who was a state and federal prosecutor for 21 years, said only once did he fail to get a grand jury to issue an indictment.
"It is a one-sided presentation where the prosecutor can lead the witnesses' testimony. In almost every case, the defendant does not testify or present evidence," Weinstein said.
Aronberg is up for re-election this year. He said that played no part in his decision, but retired Circuit Judge Edward Rogers, a Jones family supporter, accused Aronberg of "taking the easy way out" by presenting the case to a grand jury.
"He doesn't need a grand jury. It's solely up to him. He just didn't want to do it," Rogers said.
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Associated Press writer Curt Anderson contributed to this report from Palm Beach Gardens.