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Mistrial declared in hate-crime assault, civil rights case of former New Jersey police chief

The jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked after 45 hours of deliberations over eight days.

Former Police Chief Frank Nucera said nothing after a mistrial was declared in his hate-crime and assault case. His attorney said "at least for now" a burden had been lifted from Nucera's shoulders.
Former Police Chief Frank Nucera said nothing after a mistrial was declared in his hate-crime and assault case. His attorney said "at least for now" a burden had been lifted from Nucera's shoulders.Read moreTyger Williams

Former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr., who authorities said had a history of spewing racial hatred, will be tried again on federal hate-crime assault and civil rights violation charges after a jury deliberated over eight days and declared itself hopelessly deadlocked Friday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler declared a mistrial after the jury’s late-morning announcement in the trial of Nucera, 62, who was secretly recorded by nearly half of his officers.

The panel of nine white and three black jurors deliberated for about 45 hours and had told Kugler on several occasions it was deadlocked.

Called into the courtroom in Camden on Friday morning after again reporting they were deadlocked, all 12 jurors said no when asked if they could reach a verdict. Their expressions were grim.

U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito immediately said federal prosecutors would retry the case. Kugler set Nov. 13 for a status hearing and said a new trial was not expected until next year.

Nucera, wearing a burnt-orange shirt, showed no emotion when Kugler declared the mistrial. His family, including his son, Frank III, a Bordentown Township police officer, sat in the back of the courtroom. On the advice of his attorney, Nucera, who remains free on secured bond, did not speak after leaving the courtroom.

“We’re glad we got a mistrial on those two most serious counts,” Nucera’s attorney, Rocco Cipparone, said. “I’m very glad today, at least for now, this weight has been lifted from Frank Nucera’s shoulders.”

Nucera, who earned $155,444 a year for serving as both chief and township administrator since 2006, resigned in January 2017 when he learned he was under investigation by the FBI.

Kia Lipscomb, 49, the jury foreman, said Friday the panel had struggled to reach a verdict on the two most serious counts and discounted the testimony of two Bordentown Township officers who were key prosecution witnesses.

She said the jury was split 9-3 in favor of finding Nucera guilty of using excessive force and denying the civil rights of Timothy Stroye, a handcuffed black suspect, during the Sept. 1, 2016, arrest at a Ramada hotel in Bordentown Township that was at the center of the trial. The panel was more divided on the hate-crime assault count, said Lipscomb, a teacher.

On Wednesday, the jury found Nucera guilty of lying to the FBI during an interview three months after the incident. He faces up to five years in prison on that charge when he is sentenced Feb. 6. The two other charges each carry a term of up to 10 years in prison.

Nucera could also lose his $8,800-a-month pension, which was frozen in March.

On Friday, Kugler came down from the bench to thank the jurors. The trial lasted three weeks.

“Please don’t be disappointed. These were difficult decisions to be made. You should be proud of the service you rendered,” Kugler told the seven women and five men.

Pamela Richardson, 63, one of the African American jurors, said Friday that she was among those who believed Nucera was guilty on the deadlocked charges. She said she was “very angry” with the trial’s conclusion.

“My feeling is, people were looking for minute little inconsistencies to say that he wasn’t guilty,” said Richardson, of Marlton, a retired pharmaceutical representative.

The jurors said the panel struggled with the testimony of Sgt. Nathan Roohr and Detective Sgt. Salvatore Guido, who implicated Nucera. Both officers said they saw Nucera strike Stroye. Roohr testified that Nucera needlessly slammed the teen’s head into a doorjamb like a basketball at the Ramada.

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.

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 wanting to join a firing squad to mow down black people, comparing them to ISIS, and talking of sending police dogs to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games.

» READ MORE: From 2017: Ex-police chief in South Jersey had 'history' of racist conduct, but (almost) nobody knew

Also at the center of the charges against Nucera were 81 recordings secretly made by Roohr that captured the chief using racial slurs.

Cipparone said Friday that Nucera regretted using racial slurs. Nucera, who served with the department for 34 years, did not testify during the trial.

Roohr said he began secretly recording Nucera with his cellphone 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].”

The defense countered that Nucera was disliked by his officers, who wanted him out as chief. Cipparone also said that Nucera made no admissions on the recordings.

Glenn Zeitz, a veteran civil rights attorney in Moorestown, called the case “a mutiny” because so many rank and file officers testified against Nucera. Nearly half of the 25-member department secretly recorded the chief. The verdict, Zeitz said, “shows how hard it is to penetrate that blue wall of silence. Even when the blue wall starts to crack, it doesn’t crack enough.”

Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County East NAACP branch, said he was not surprised that the jury failed to convict Nucera on two of the three counts, given that that he was accused of being a racist.

“People don’t want to deal with the elephant not only in the courtroom, but in America. The elephant in America is race,” he said. "I’m not surprised with the verdict because it was against not just a white person, but a white police officer. Those convictions are few and far between. So, hey, try him again.”

In Bordentown Township, Robert Moore, 86, a retired mailman who has lived in the township for more than 50 years, said the community was relatively free from racism until Nucera became chief.

He recalls being stopped and questioned by police five times within one year. When he questioned Nucera about it, the chief said his officers were just trying to stop crime before it happens, he said.

“I’m just happy that they got a conviction on something. I don’t understand how they can find him guilty of lying to the FBI and not guilty of the other things. That’s kind of mysterious to me,” Moore said Friday.

Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has done research on hate crimes, said cases like the Nucera trial can prove difficult for prosecutors to show evidence of a bias charge linked to an alleged assault, despite the tape recordings. “Being a racist doesn’t make everything you do bias-related,” Pezzella said Friday. “That’s not a crime. It’s not your expression, it’s your conduct.”

Staff writers Justine McDaniel and Joseph A. Gambardello contributed to this article.