Was former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. a racist who used derogatory slurs to refer to minorities, and assaulted a black teen because of his race? Or was the former top law enforcement officer in the Burlington County community maligned by rank-and-file officers who wanted him out?
A federal jury in Camden heard conflicting views Friday in opening arguments in the hate-crime trial of the former chief, who allegedly said blacks were “like ISIS” and talked about joining a firing squad to mow them down.
Nucera, 61, is charged with hate-crime assault, deprivation of civil rights, and lying to the FBI. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and lose his $8,800 monthly pension, which has been frozen since March pending the outcome of the case.
The charges stem from a Sept. 1, 2016, incident in which prosecutors say Nucera attacked a handcuffed black suspect in police custody at a hotel. After the assault, authorities say, he made a series of racist remarks that were secretly recorded by an officer in his department at the police station.
Both sides, in their opening statements before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler, warned the jury of seven women and five men that testimony in the trial would include offensive language — racial slurs and profanity. The panel includes three black women.
Nucera was captured using the N-word on recordings secretly made by officers in the department. The 81 recordings and testimony by former rank-and-file members once under his command are expected to be key to the trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber told the jury that Nucera “had a deep animus against African Americans.” That hostility, she said, erupted when Nucera slammed a handcuffed teen into a doorjamb during the arrest. Later at the police station, Nucera justified the violence, she said, telling another officer who recorded the comments that police had to respond to an incident because it involved “six unruly f— N-word.”
”Listen to what he is telling you about himself, about his motives and about his conduct,” Lorber told the jury. Nucera, who is white, also made derogatory remarks about other minorities and gays, authorities said.
Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone said the case is about “ugly, embarrassing words that my client said.” But he urged the jury not to turn criminal justice into “social justice.”
“They’re just words. They’re not actions,” Cipparone said. ”They’re asking you to punish words.”
The jury showed no emotion as the N-word was repeated several times. During jury selection earlier this week, prospective jurors were questioned about their views on race, reverse discrimination against whites, and police officers charged with using excessive force in a racially motivated case. Among those selected was a nurse, a school guidance counselor, two teachers, a banker, a bartender, and a food service worker.
The jurors must decide whether they believe allegations by Sgt. Nathan Roohr that he saw Nucera push Timothy Stroye’s head into a doorway frame so hard that it made a thud and whether the assault was racially motivated. Nucera, however, makes no admission on the recordings to roughing up the suspect, his attorney said.
It remains unclear whether Stroye, 19, of Trenton, will take the stand. Stroye told police he couldn’t identify the person who struck him during a scuffle with police. He said he recalled hearing someone say “chief” during the incident.
The jury heard testimony Friday from several witnesses, including current Police Chief Brian Pesce, who in late 2016 filed an internal complaint against his boss alleging misconduct. He described Nucera as an abusive micromanager who was “often prone to fits of anger.”
Asked by the prosecutor if he heard Nucera use racial slurs, Pesce said the former chief used the N-word and other slurs in his presence and referred to blacks as “those people.”
Pesce said officers on the force filed internal affairs complaints about Nucera as far back as 2009 with the county Prosecutor’s Office, alleging misconduct, but nothing happened. He said those who crossed the chief often faced retaliation, like an officer forced out on disability pension or another ordered by Nucera to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation, he said.
When a local newspaper received an anonymous letter that it believed was sent by an officer complaining about Nucera, Pesce said, the chief made him retrieve the letter and process it for fingerprints. In another case, Nucera tried to obtain an IP address to identify a person who made negative comments about him online, he said.
Cipparone suggested in his cross-examination that Pesce wanted Nucera out as chief so he could take his job. He also said officers disliked Nucera because he strictly adhered to policies and restricted overtime pay.
The case differs from most misconduct cases alleging police used excessive force because officers broke the “blue wall of silence” and implicated their own chief, said Glenn Zeitz of Moorestown, a veteran defense attorney who has represented mob figures in racketeering trials.
“This is a mutiny,” Zeitz said Friday. “It’s at the top level.”
A key prosecution witness during the trial will be Roohr, a K-9 officer on the force, who recorded the bulk of more than 100 hours of conversations in which Nucera repeatedly is heard using racial slurs. He is expected to testify Monday when the trial resumes.
Roohr said he heard Nucera heard say, “These [N-word] are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow 'em down. I’d like to be on the firing line, I could do it.” Roohr said Nucera told officers to use police dogs to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games.
Roohr said he was alarmed by the chief’s hostility toward blacks in the predominantly white community and began recording Nucera in 2015, according to court documents. Roohr said he became vigilant about the recordings after the hotel incident.