As jurors began deliberations Wednesday in the federal hate crime trial of former Bordentown Township police chief Frank Nucera Jr., a verdict appeared to hinge on the credibility of two fellow officers who testified against their old boss.
Officers Nathan Roohr and Sal Guido both say they saw Nucera slam the head of a handcuffed black teenager against a door during a 2016 arrest at a local hotel. Prosecutors say the alleged assault was motivated by racial hatred. They point to secret recordings made hours later in which the chief uses the N-word and warns black people to “stay the f— out of Bordentown.”
“Ask yourselves: Why would they lie?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko told jurors in his closing argument. He said the officers risked their careers by speaking out. “They had nothing to gain. They had everything to lose.”
But in his closing remarks, defense attorney Rocco Cipparone asserted the assault never happened. He highlighted that Guido originally told FBI agents he didn’t see the chief strike the teen, and he noted “there’s not a single audio or video recording to prove that Frank Nucera ever put a hand on” him.
Don’t credit prosecution witness
“There’s nothing to support Roohr’s story except Roohr’s story,” he said. “And Guido, I’m a little surprised they even had the thought to try to sell Guido to you,” he said of prosecutors. “I respectfully can’t imagine you can credit anything Guido says.”
The seven women and five men in the jury began deliberations around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and did not reach a decision by the end of the day. They will return to the U.S. courthouse in Camden on Thursday morning to resume deliberating on the three counts against Nucera: hate-crime assault, violation of constitutional rights and lying to the FBI in connection with the incident.
The former chief faces up to 20 years in prison and could lose his $106,000 annual pension if convicted.
The charges stem 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. Roohr, who was on the scene, testified the chief grabbed the teen’s head “like a basketball” and slammed it into a metal doorjamb, causing a “loud thud.”
Later that night, Nucera is heard on one of the dozens of secret recordings made by Roohr and other officers saying, “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.” He also says it would have been “nice” to have released a police dog on Stroye and the group he was with, referring to them using the N-word.
The defense did not call any witnesses during the trial, and Nucera did not take the stand.
On Wednesday, Cipparone, the defense attorney, presented the jury with a litany of alternative explanations of what may have happened at the hotel, none of which involved Nucera assaulting the teen.
Perhaps Stroye sustained a head injury from the officer who had him in a headlock while trying to make the arrest, he told jurors. Or perhaps it was Roohr and Guido who knocked Stroye’s head when loading him into the police car, as one unnamed witness told the FBI in an account investigators later deemed not to be credible.
Cipparone also pointed to Nucera’s multiple comments on secret recordings either denying he touched Stroye or offering to help the FBI in their investigation.
“I hope there was a camera there,” Nucera says at one point, referring to the hotel.
“Does that sound like a consciousness of guilt?” Cipparone asked.
But prosecutors called those arguments mere “speculation” and asked jurors to focus on what Nucera said shortly after the alleged assault.
“Listen to him,” Gribko said. “That’s what he means. That’s why he did what he did.”