Prosecutors delivered opening statements Friday in the trial of afacing federal hate crime and civil rights charges for allegedly slamming a handcuffed black man's head into a doorjamb during a September 2016 arrest.
Federal prosecutors say former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr., 62, was motivated by hatred of African Americans, and had been recorded by officers in his department concerned over his racist comments. Legal experts and civil rights advocates say it's "exceedingly rare" for a law enforcement officer to be charged with a federal hate crime, and they are watching the case closely.
"It's unusual, and it's troubling," said Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, who closely tracks cases of officers charged with misconduct. Stinson could not find another case of an officer charged under the same federal hate crime statute in a database he maintains of cases between 2005 and 2014.
Laws in many states allow for an officer to use force if they reasonably believe it's necessary to protect themselves or someone else from death or serious harm. So when it comes to police accused of violence, "you rarely, if ever, have any kind of prosecution, let alone a hate crime prosecution," said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups.
For officers who are charged over excessive force, courts and juries are often reluctant to second guess an officer's actions on the job, according to Stinson. But Stinson said he's not sure whether that will hold true in the Nucera trial because of the "allegations of blatant racial discrimination and violence based on race by a police chief."
Nucera, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of hate crime assault, deprivation of civil rights and lying to FBI agents, retired in 2017 amid an FBI investigation. He had also previously served as township administrator in Bordentown, a predominantly white town located a few miles away from New Jersey's capital city of Trenton, which is majority African-American.
Prosecutors allege Nucera was among several officers who responded to the report of teens swimming in the pool of a Bordentown hotel without paying for a room in September 2016. They allege one of the teens, who is African-American, was handcuffed and being escorted to a police cruiser when Nucera approached him from behind and slammed his head into a doorjamb, injuring him. Prosecutors say the teen didn't pose a threat.
Assistant U.S. Atty Molly Lorber told a jury in a Camden courtroom on Friday that Nucera was motivated by "a deep animus" against African-Americans, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer's Melanie Burney. In court papers, prosecutors say he had a "significant history" of making racist comments, using racial slurs and espousing violence towards African-Americans. One of his officers became so alarmed that he began making numerous recordings of the offensive comments over the course of a year.
According to that officer, who would later tip off the FBI, Nucera used racial slurs hours after the incident at the hotel while referring to the teens and their family members. When Nucera learned the teens were from Trenton, he allegedly said, "Stay the f--- out of Bordentown."
"I'm f--- tired of them, man," Nucera said in the recording, according to prosecution court filings. "I'll tell you what, it's getting to the point where I could shoot one of these m-----f------. And that n----- b------ lady, she almost got it."
About three months later, while attempting to defend his use of force, prosecutors say Nucera was recorded saying officers were called to the hotel "cause of six unruly f----- n------."
The officer also recorded Nucera in November 2015 making racist comments while speaking about an African-American man he suspected of slashing the tires of a police vehicle, prosecutors say. Nucera allegedly said: "These n---- 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 squad, I could do it. I used to think about if I could shoot someone or not, I could do it, I'm tired of it."
Prosecutors also allege in court filings that Nucera used "offensive racial stereotypes" to guide his allocation of police resources, insisting that police dogs were necessary when the department provided security for local high school basketball games when the opposing team was predominately African-American.
In court filings, prosecutors say nearly half of the 23 officers in the department had at one point recorded Nucera's comments because they were so disturbed. The recordings will likely prove crucial for prosecutors as they seek to prove the assault was motivated by hate, Beirich said.
In opening statements, a lawyer for Nucera, Rocco Cipparone, told the jury to judge the former chief based on actions, not words, Burney reports.
Cipparone told CBS News the former chief admits making the comments and is remorseful. But, he says the government doesn't have evidence to prove their allegations, which Nucera denies. Cipparone said there are no video recordings of the incident, and he pointed to what he called "material differences" in the prosecution's version of events.
"Mr. Nucera said some pretty socially unacceptable and inappropriate comments of a racial nature, but as the judge told every juror we interviewed and selected, it's not a crime even for police officers to use those terms," Cipparone told CBS News. "So unless the government proves Frank Nucera struck [the alleged victim] and struck him because of his race, he's not guilty."
Racism and bigotry in law enforcement "destroys the integrity of the judicial system as a whole" because any an officer's racist beliefs would likely drive who they choose to arrest or target, said Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"There's nothing more dangerous than a person who has a gun and has authority over someone who is motivated by hate," Beirich said.
Nucera faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted and stands to lose his $8,832 a month police pension, which has been frozen pending the trial's outcome, Burney reports.