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Jury finds former N.J. police chief guilty of lying to FBI

Deliberations will continue Thursday over two other charges in the hate-crime assault trial of former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr.

Former Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. exits U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.
Former Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. exits U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A jury on Wednesday found former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. guilty of lying to the FBI in his hate-crime assault trial, but remained undecided on two other charges.

Nine white and three black jurors deliberated for more than 37 hours before returning the verdict in federal court in Camden. One of the white jurors stood in the jury box with his hands crossed when the panel solemnly filed into the courtroom.

Nucera, 62, sitting next to his attorney, showed no expression when the verdict was announced. Several family members, including son Frank III, a current Bordentown Township police officer, were in the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler polled the jurors individually and each responded, “Yes.”

Kugler told the jury to return Thursday morning to decide whether there was any chance that it could reach a unanimous verdict on the two remaining counts: hate-crime assault and deprivation of civil rights. Each carries up to 10 years in prison. Nucera could also lose his $8,800-a-month pension, which was frozen in March pending the outcome of the trial.

The jury on Tuesday said it was deadlocked on the two counts. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, a mistrial will likely be declared on those charges. The panel of seven women and five men has been deliberating since Oct. 2.

Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone said Nucera was disappointed by the partial verdict and was on “pins and needles” awaiting the outcome on the final two charges. He described the charge of lying to the FBI as “the lesser of three evils.”

”I was hoping that it was not guilty, but we’re going to see what happens tomorrow as well,” Cipparone said. “It is what it is, and I have to accept it.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber left without commenting.

Kugler set Feb. 6 as Nucera’s sentencing date on the conviction. He faces up to five years in prison.

When Nucera was accused of the hate-crime assault in 2017, the charges made international headlines and stunned the South Jersey community. Authorities said the chief had a history of spewing racial hatred, including speaking about joining a firing squad to mow black people down, comparing them to ISIS, and talking of sending police dogs to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games.

Nucera was charged with hitting Timothy Stroye, a handcuffed black suspect, during a September 2016 incident at a Ramada hotel. Fellow officers say Stroye was in custody and not resisting when Nucera slammed the teen’s head into a metal doorjamb during a scuffle with police.

Police were dispatched to the Ramada after an employee said Stroye, then 18, of Trenton, and his girlfriend were swimming in the pool and had not paid their bill. Nucera arrived with backup officers.

At the center of the charges in the trial against Nucera were 81 recordings secretly made by Sgt. Nathan Roohr that captured the chief using racial slurs. Roohr and another officer also said they saw Nucera hit Stroye.

Prosecutors argued during the three-week trial that the longtime chief had a “significant history“ of racial remarks. Nucera resigned from dual positions as chief and township administrator in January 2017 after learning the FBI was investigating.

Roohr said he began secretly recording Nucera with his cell phone in 2015 after Nucera said blacks are “like ISIS” and deserved to die. He said he became concerned about Nucera’s increasing hostility against blacks in the predominantly white community.

The prosecution contended that the racial animus was evidence the alleged assault by Nucera was racially motivated. In a recording played during the trial, Nucera could be heard saying, “It’s gonna get to the point where I could shoot one of these [expletives].”

Civil rights attorney Stanley King said he was not surprised that the jury apparently has struggled with the hate-crime charge. King specializes in police misconduct cases.

”There’s an elephant in the room. Very few people want to confront the issue of race,” King said Wednesday. “That’s America’s hangnail.”

In closing arguments last week, Cipparone urged the jurors not to confuse criminal justice with social justice. He said the “ugly words” don’t equal action. Nucera made no admission of striking Stroye on the recordings, he said.

Stroye was issued a subpoena, but was not called by either side. In statements to investigators, he has said he could not identify who struck him, but said he heard someone say “chief.”

During its deliberations, the jury asked for transcripts of the testimony of seven of the nine witnesses called by the prosecution. The defense rested without calling any witnesses.

Experts say the case is unique because Nucera was implicated by his rank-and-file officers who broke the “blue wall of silence.” It is also unusual for a law enforcement officer to be charged with a hate crime.

Frank Pezzella, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who has done research on hate crimes, speculated that the jury had possibly rejected the testimony of the two eyewitness officers.

“It sounds like a hung jury unless someone is going to cave overnight,” Pezzella said. “It speaks to the difficulty of trying to prove a bias conduct.”

The defense contended that Nucera was disliked by his officers, who wanted him out as chief. A 34-year law enforcement veteran, Nucera was well-known in the Bordentown area. Officers said Nucera easily lost his temper and retaliated against anyone who challenged him.

The jury found on Wednesday that Nucera lied to the FBI, which secretly recorded an interview with him three months after the Ramada incident. Nucera was not charged with making a specific false statement.

In the interview with an FBI agent, Nucera said he had nothing to do with Stroye’s arrest and that he had no knowledge of any officer using excessive force.

”I didn’t go hands-on, didn’t touch anybody,” Nucera said. He remains free on bail.