Mistrial declared on two remaining counts in hate-crime trial of former N.J. police chief

Frank Nucera Jr., left, with his defense attorney Rocco Cipparone. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

Frank Nucera Jr., left, with his defense attorney Rocco Cipparone. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

Updated 1:10 p.m.

A judge declared a mistrial Friday on the two most serious counts against former New Jersey police chief Frank Nucera Jr., who faces charges of hate-crime assault and excessive force for allegedly slamming a handcuffed black teenager into a door during a 2016 arrest.

Jurors found the former Bordentown Township chief guilty of lying to the FBI earlier this week.

Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone called the outcome “in some sense a victory for the defense.”

“I’m glad that the jury at a minimum was deadlocked on the two most serious counts,” he said. “I think there’s ample reasonable doubt. But for now, we’re happy with a mistrial.”

Federal prosecutors say they will try again to convict Nucera on those two charges but did not comment on the verdict.

Nucera, who is white, was caught on secret recordings hurling racial slurs and threatening violence against black people. Prosecutors used his words to allege the chief committed a hate crime when he allegedly struck the teenager, in addition to violating the man’s constitutional rights by using excessive force.

But jurors said they were deadlocked on those counts after roughly 45 hours of deliberations spread over eight days. 

“I think if you can talk about something for eight days, that’s inherently indicative of reasonable doubt,” Cipparone said. 

He called the deliberations “grueling” for Nucera, who was joined in the courtroom many days by his daughter and his son, who is currently an officer on the Bordentown Township Police Department.

Nucera’s sentencing for lying to the FBI is scheduled for Feb. 6. He faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and could lose the $106,000-a-year pension he had been receiving until March when it was frozen pending the outcome of the trial.

Nucera, 62, did not testify at his trial and did not address reporters Friday at the advice of his attorney. He maintained a stoic demeanor throughout the proceedings, including on Wednesday when the jury forewoman delivered the guilty verdict.

After jurors wrote a note Friday saying they were deadlocked, Judge Robert B. Kugler asked them one by one is there was “any reasonable chance” of reaching a unanimous verdict.

“I hate to say it, but no,” one man said.

“Please, please don’t think you’ve let anyone down,” Kugler told the group. “You’ve done your very best.”

Nucera was the first police officer charged with a federal hate crime in a decade when he was indicted in 2017, CNN reported. The case is remarkable both for its lurid allegations and the people who made them: fellow officers who broke the “blue wall of silence” to secretly record their boss and bring the files to the FBI.

The charges stemmed from a Sept. 1, 2016 call to police from the Bordentown Ramada hotel that Timothy Stroye, then 18, and his 16-year-old girlfriend were swimming in the pool without paying for a room.

After a physical struggle, police got Stroye into handcuffs and were leading him out of the hotel when Nucera allegedly approached the teen from behind and slammed his head into a metal doorjamb.

Prosecutors argue the assault was motivated by “intense racial animus.” At trial, they presented secret recordings from the day of the arrest in which Nucera says it would have been “nice” to have released a police dog on Stroye, whom he refers to using the N-word, and adds at another point: “I’m f—ing tired of them, man. I’ll tell you what, it’s gonna get to the point where I could shoot one of these motherf—ers.”

Nathan Roohr, a fellow Bordentown officer who testified against Nucera at trial, reported he heard Nucera previously compare black people to ISIS.

“They have no value,” Nucera was reported as saying. “They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it. I used to think about if I could shoot someone or not, I could do it, I’m tired of it.”

In Nucera’s defense, attorney Rocco Cipparone conceded the chief’s words were “ugly and disgusting” but denied he assaulted the teenager. He noted Nucera made no admission on the recordings, and he sought to undermine the credibility of Roohr and another officer who said he witnessed the alleged assault by calling attention to inconsistent statements the officers made in the course of the FBI’s investigation.

Jurors seemed to split the difference between the government’s and defense’s portrayal of events.

They agreed with prosecutors that Nucera had lied to FBI agents when he said in a subsequent interview that he didn’t touch Stroye.

But they apparently weren’t in unanimous agreement that Nucera had committed an assault — the allegation underpinning both the hate crime and excessive force count.

Jury deliberations lasted as long as the trial itself. Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor and now head of the white-collar criminal defense practice at the law firm McCarter & English, said “it’s not common but it’s not entirely unusual” for a jury to deliver a partial verdict and then continue deliberating on other counts.

“It really depends on what the jurors tell the judge and as long as they indicate a desire to continue to deliberate, generally the judge will allow that to continue,” he said.

Asked Friday how Nucera can begin to repair his reputation, Cipparone, the defense attorney, said Nucera “regretted” making racist statements but stopped short of issuing an apology. 

“As I told the jury, they’re not pleasant comments, certainly. They’re ugly and embarrassing comments,” Cipparone said. “But he’s moved past them. He’s moving forward in his life and he’s trying to put this chapter behind him.”

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