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Hate-crime retrial opens for former South Jersey police chief Frank Nucera Jr.

Ex-Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. is accused of slamming the head of a Black teenager into a door jamb.

File: Ex-Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera enters the U.S. District Courthouse with his daughter, Christine, in Camden. Testimony began Friday in his hate-crime assault trial.
File: Ex-Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera enters the U.S. District Courthouse with his daughter, Christine, in Camden. Testimony began Friday in his hate-crime assault trial.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Was ex-Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. a racist who slammed a handcuffed teenager into a door jamb because of the color of his skin? Or was the chief set up by disgruntled officers who wanted him out?

Those were the conflicting portraits presented Friday as Nucera’s retrial on hate-crime assault charges opened in U.S. District Court in Camden.

Nucera, the longtime chief in the predominantly white community of 11,000 just south of Trenton, “held a deep animosity toward African Americans,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber told jurors.

» READ MORE: Race takes center stage as jury questioning begins in hate-crime trial of former South Jersey police chief

It was that animosity, prosecutors say, that led him to strike Timothy Stroye, 18, during a 2016 arrest at a Bordentown hotel. Police were called to the Ramada after Stroye allegedly failed to pay for his room. Officers said the suspect was not resisting.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler declared a mistrial in Nucera’s first trial, in October 2019, after a jury found the former chief guilty of lying to the FBI but deadlocked on two counts of hate-crime assault and deprivation of civil rights. Kugler sentenced Nucera in May to 28 months in prison for lying to the FBI but allowed him to remain free pending the outcome of the retrial. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison on each count.

Only one of the 12 jurors on the retrial is Black; the jury for Nucera’s first trial had nine white and three Black people.

Prosecutors say Nucera, 64, had “a significant history” of making racist comments concerning African Americans, spoke about joining a firing squad to kill them, and used police dogs to intimidate Black spectators at high school basketball games.

During her opening statement, Lorber played a profanity-laced excerpt for the jury from one of 81 secret recordings made by fellow officers in which Nucera could be heard using a racial slur. In one, Nucera says, “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.”

» READ MORE: White guilt’? Jurors in hate-crime trial of ex-South Jersey police chief felt pressured in verdict, lawyer says.

In his opening, Rocco Cipparone contended that the prosecution was attempting to conflate criminal justice with social justice. He urged the jury not to punish Nucera “for his difficult, ugly, and embarrassing words.”

Cipparone told the jury: ”The government wants you to focus on those words.”

He said the case against Nucera was “all talk and no proof of action.”

In a 2017 interview with The Inquirer, Stroye recounted his encounter with Nucera and the officers. Two had their hands on their guns, he said, though neither drew his weapon. Stroye also told police that he couldn’t identify the person who struck him. He said he recalled hearing someone say “chief” during the incident.

“I thought they were going to shoot me,” he said.

Stroye died earlier this year.

But the prosecution is expected to call other witnesses, including rank-and-file officers ignoring what is often called the “blue wall of silence.” Among them is Bordentown Township Lt. Nathan Roohr, who has admitted to secretly recording his former boss.

Cipparone has questioned Roohr’s motives in recording Nucera, suggesting there was a concerted effort by him and others to oust Nucera because they were unhappy with Nucera’s overtime policies and disciplinary actions.

The first witness to take the stand, Brian Pesce, a former captain in the department who succeeded Nucera, said his ex-chief could once in a while be funny and charismatic but ”the other 90%” of the time Nucera was mostly angry, vindictive, and spiteful.

”He presented an intimidating type of persona,” testified Pesce. “It was difficult to work for him.”

Pesce said officers in the department previously reported misconduct by Nucera but nothing was done. Nucera retaliated against anyone who tried to buck him, he said.

A 34-year veteran, Nucera resigned from the 25-member police department in January 2017 after learning he was under investigation. His annual pension of $105,992 was frozen.

After the first trial, Cipparone appealed Nucera’s conviction on the false statements charge, arguing in part that white jurors alleged they were pressured by Black jurors to reach a verdict and they gave in to “white guilt.”

During jury selection this week for the retrial, he moved to strike three Black people from the pool of prospective jurors, but told The Inquirer race was not a factor in that decision.

“I don’t care what race you are,” Cipparone said. “I care if I don’t think you can be a fair and impartial juror.”

Asked why she didn’t challenge the defense’s move to strike three Black potential jurors, Lorber declined to comment.

Frank Pezzella, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College who specializes in hate-crime research, said he was surprised by the prosecutor’s decision. “I’m not feeling really good about that,” he told The Inquirer.

The trial is expected to last about three weeks.