The Raja Trial Begins, Delray Gets a New Attorney and Why Is FAU’s College District Stalled?

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This week begins the biggest criminal case against a Palm Beach County law enforcement officer in more than a quarter-century.

It will start Thursday with picking a jury to decide charges of manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder against Nouman Raja. In October 2015, the former Palm Beach Gardens cop fatally shot Corey Jones, who worked for the Delray Beach Housing Authority. His family owns The New Vegan restaurant in Delray’s Pineapple Grove.

The case might seem clear. Raja, who was working plainclothes, did not identify himself as a police officer when he approached Jones’ van. Having broken down, it was on the southbound Interstate 95 exit ramp. Raja had parked his vehicle in front of Jones, rather than behind, as is normal procedure. Based on court documents, Raja in every way provoked the fatal confrontation.

More important, Raja lied repeatedly to investigators. He claimed that Jones drew his licensed pistol, forcing Raja to act in self-defense. Raja said he had identified himself. Unbeknownst to Raja, however, Jones’ call to a dispatcher for roadside help was recorded. The tape contradicts all of Raja’s defenses, including the claim that he called 911 after firing three shots. In fact, Raja fired three more times before calling. Jones’ gun was unloaded. The safety was on.

In 1991, however, a jury acquitted two West Palm Beach officers who had faced second-degree murder charges. Their encounter with Robert Jewett the year before had left Jewett with a broken neck, nine broken ribs, a bruised lung, a hole in his heart, blood-filled testicles and a black eye. The officers, who said Jewett had resisted arrest, showed no signs of injuries.

An internal affairs review, however, found that officers had not used excessive force. The department’s botched investigation also helped the officers. They spoke with their attorneys before answering questions from investigators. One officer claimed that Jewett grabbed his gun, but no one tested the weapon for fingerprints. Then-Police Chief Billy Riggs said, “We screwed up royally.”

Scott Richardson is the link between the two cases. He represented the West Palm Beach officers with Barry Krischer, who went on to serve four terms as state attorney. Richardson also is on Raja’s legal team. As in 1991, the police union is paying the lawyers.

The charges in the Raja case are interesting. Prosecutors dispute the ex-officer’s case that he had to fire the first three shots. Because Raja then paused and Jones was running away, prosecutors argue—and investigators concluded—that the only purpose of the second volley was to kill Jones.

Perhaps the prosecution is right on the higher charges. Or the state attorney’s office may be offering manslaughter as a fallback, to improve the chance of a conviction.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg won a second term in 2016 without opposition, but the Raja case could have political implications. One month after losing the Jewett case, then-State Attorney David Bludworth also lost the William Kennedy Smith rape case. Both prosecutions were inept. Bludworth did not seek a sixth term.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Joseph Marx has ruled that jurors can’t hear the prosecution’s expert say that Raja violated all the basics of police procedure. He also has ruled that the defense can’t offer an expert to say that Raja acted properly. The case likely will turn on that tape. If Raja gets convicted of a crime, the cover-up likely will be what convicts him.

Conversion therapy in the courts

A federal judge ruled last week against a temporary injunction for Boca Raton’s ban on conversion therapy, but it’s just the opening round of litigation.

Two family therapists had sought the injunction against the city and Palm Beach County, which passed a similar ban on therapy that seeks to repress what the plaintiffs call “unwanted same-sex sexual attractions.” The city council approved the ban in October 2017, with Councilman Jeremy Rodgers casting the only “no” vote.

U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg found that Boca Raton did not act “irrationally or unreasonably.” The ban applies only to minors and exempts members of the clergy. Therapists who support the treatment still may advocate for it in public. A documentary called “The Sunday Sessions” tells the story of a man who claims that conversion therapy resolved his “unwanted attractions.”

As to whether the ban addresses a “compelling interest,” the city cited studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association that examined conversion therapy. The studies showed that, rather than help young people, the treatment led to self-hatred and even death. The city and county, Rosenberg wrote, “have identified a compelling interest in protecting the safety and welfare of minors.”

Federal appeals courts generally have upheld such bans. Rosenberg acknowledged, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court has questioned some of those rulings. Attorneys for the plaintiffs already have appealed Rosenberg’s ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

And this fight is just over the injunction. Arguments over the law’s constitutionality await. Ironically, Boca Raton identified only one conversion therapy practitioner in the city. No one spoke on the ban when the council approved it. Former Mayor Susan Haynie said she raised the issue at the request of some residents.

Now, though, lawyers are involved. If the 11th Circuit takes the case, the appeal could take a year to resolve. Meanwhile, the ban remains in place.

Delray gets new attorney

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Delray Beach has a permanent city attorney.

During city commission comments at the Feb. 5 meeting, Commissioner Shirley Johnson made a motion to give the job to Lynn Gelin. She’s been the interim city attorney since November, when Mayor Shelly Petrolia—also unannounced—made a motion to fire Max Lohman. Commissioners Johnson and Adam Frankel went along.

The city had contracted with Lohman’s law firms, as many cities do for legal work. Frankel had said he favored having the city attorney on staff. That had been the case during his previous time on the commission.

Gelin had been one of three in-house lawyers reporting to Lohman. Before the unanimous vote to name her, commissioners asked if she wanted the job. Gelin had been reluctant in November, but she has come around to enjoying the work.

As for Petrolia, she claimed that Lohman had not kept the commission sufficiently informed. Lohman responded that Petrolia simply hadn’t wanted to hear what he said. Despite his anger at being fired, however, Lohman had praised Gelin’s skill and integrity.

Gelin becomes the first in-house city attorney since the commission ran off Noel Pfeffer in 2016. Petrolia, then a commissioner, also had a hand in Pfeffer’s departure.

What’s happening with college district?

We’ve heard little in the last few months about Boca Raton creating a college student district east of Florida Atlantic University. At a recent city council workshop, Mayor Scott Singer elaborated on what he had told me about discussion he had last November at a gathering of mayors from other college towns.

Singer noted that the area potentially affected by the change could stretch from Interstate 95 to North Federal Highway and from Spanish River Boulevard to Glades Road. Developers already market housing to FAU and Lynn University students that is on or near Spanish River Boulevard. Among the changes Singer wants the city to consider is a remake of the five-way intersection at North Federal Highway and 20th Street.

As Singer had acknowledged, one issue is that the area is not blighted. Rezoning to allow “university-supportive businesses” could displace existing businesses that don’t mesh with the new approach. Twentieth Street might be narrowed or split, to encourage walking and biking.

Yet the student district also could be part of the push to rezone the area east of Dixie Highway, perhaps to allow two-story, live-work buildings that would replace faded duplexes. According to Singer’s presentation, the goal would be to create a “more urban character.”

But how and when would this happen? Though the city has used the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council to identify the issues and start discussion, Boca Raton has no current contract for work on the university district. Constance Scott, the former city councilwoman who is FAU’s director of local relations, said, “I prefer not to comment on issues impacting the city as it pertains to growth and development.”

In an email, Singer said he made the presentation because he sought “from the team at the Mayor’s Institute of City Design. The MICD suggested certain parameters for a case study, and this fit them well.”

Kim Delaney is the planning council staff member who worked with the city. FAU, she said, “will be more successful if the land uses (near the university) benefit it.” Delaney noted that drivers approaching FAU from the east along what once was the main entrance “have no idea” that a university is just ahead. “The road doesn’t say anything. This could be a branding opportunity for FAU.”

I’ve been told that progress must wait until FAU’s update of its master plan, which the city must review. Whatever the reason, an ambitious idea seems stalled.

Delray on a green roll?

(Photo by Meghan Rodgers)

The Delray Beach City Commission approved the ban on single-use plastic straws, and may go further.

At their Feb. 5 meeting, commissioners asked about also banning Styrofoam—Miami Beach has banned it on beaches—and plastic bags. Delray Beach generally has been ahead of Boca Raton on sustainability, though Boca now has its own sustainability officer.

Adding bans on those other products could be more problematic after Delray Beach got buy-in from the chamber of commerce on the straw ban. Any action, though, likely would come soon. The Legislature may seek to preempt local product regulation during the session that runs from March until May. Commissioners asked the new city attorney to research the issues.

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