Love of the law drives Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri

Phillip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer, From an eighth-floor office on West State Street in Trenton, Angelo J. Onofri works every day in the county that he grew up in and is entrusted with protecting., In December, the career lawyer was confirmed by the state Senate to serve a five-year-term as the Mercer County Prosecutor, a job he had held on an “acting” basis since March 2015 after his predecessor retired. At 52, he leads an office with some 200 employees and an annual budget of around $19 million., By day, Onofri is Mercer County’s top law enforcement officer responsible for prosecuting killers, gang leaders and drug dealers. By night, he is the husband who enjoys the company of his four grandchildren, a good read and a win by the Yankees., Those two worlds can collide, and often do, when a fight in Trenton turns deadly and Onofri’s phone starts ringing., “There’s been a lot of dinners and family events that have gotten interrupted because something’s happened,” he said in an interview last week. “My wife and the family are very supportive. They know what the job entails and they knew what it entailed walking into it.”, He spoke at length about the career path he took into the law, the inroads law enforcement has made to stem violence in Trenton and the new changes affecting how his office handles cases., Onfori grew up in Hamilton, where the seeds of becoming a lawyer were sown. As a senior at Steinart High School in the early 1980s, he took a class that exposed him to lawyers, judges and politicians., “And it really kind of developed a love for the law for me,” he said looking back. “That kind of propelled it.”, Graduating in 1983, he went to Rutgers University and pursued his interests in law and government. In school, he interned for Rep. Chris Smith, (R-4), and also worked for him in his district office., “Part of what we did was casework, trying to streamline people who were having issues dealing with the federal government for benefits or anything along those lines,” he said. “So getting involved with that, I kind of saw that was a way to help people and I thought the law was a big way to help people also.”, He graduated from Rutgers in 1987 and Villanova University School of Law in 1990. For six years, he worked in private practice at McCarthy and Schatzman, a small law firm, before he moved into the Mercer County Counsel’s Office. He also doubled as a prosecutor in Trenton municipal court., “I really liked the day-to-day interaction with other lawyers,” he said. “When I left to go to the county counsel’s office and when I was in private practice, I was literally in court every day. And it was something that you do kind of miss.”, In 1998, he joined the Prosecutor’s Office and has never left; he rose to first assistant prosecutor and became the boss two years ago when then-Prosecutor Joseph L. Bocchini Jr. retired. He served in an interim capacity, until Gov. Chris Christie last year nominated him for the post and the Senate approved the nomination by a unanimous vote., The workload in Mercer is voluminous; the office handles some 6,000 indictable cases annually, all with victims seeking justice and Onofri responsible for the outcome. Yet law enforcement face challenges, from witnesses afraid to come forward out of fear of being victims of retaliation for cooperating to mistrust that some have of police., “I think one of the biggest issues that’s facing law enforcement throughout the United States is the deterioration of police and community relations,” he said. “That’s a reality that we have to deal with.”, To change those perceptions, he said law enforcement is working to have positive interactions with the public. Last summer, his office and other law enforcement agencies had cookouts in the neighborhood of Shiloh Baptist Church, in Trenton. The first week, some 40 people showed up; by the second week, more than 100 did., “It was an idea to get everyone together. People from my office and the Trenton Police Department played ball with the kids,” he said. “And it was a great opportunity for us to interact with the community.”, In August 2013, in response to the gun violence plaguing Trenton, then-state Attorney General John J. Hoffman joined other law enforcement authorities to announce steps to crack down on shootings in a city that would end that year with a record 37 murders— an average of one murder every three days. In 2014, Mercer County had 32 murders total; every single one of them happened in the city., “Folks were just carrying the guns for no particular reason and they were doing it in public. And we found that a lot of this stuff is just too impromptu violence,” he said. “We’ve also found that there’s a lot of tangential stuff that occurs where the unintended victims are getting hit and killed. It seems that it’s violence for the sake of violence.”, Law enforcement put more manpower on the streets and went after gang members and others who have guns in public. Murders in the city went from 37 in 2013 to 17 in 2015, although they rose to 21 in 2016, crime statistics at the State Police showed., “I don’t know that there’s any good answer to it,” he said when asked to explain the reduction. “And I don’t think I can take credit for it or that this office can take credit for it.”, He pointed to work by the Trenton Police and said authorities reconstituted the Mercer County Shooting Response Team to solve shootings in their immediate aftermath., “It really is that first forty-eight hours concept, where you put the resources in while the leads and while everything is still fresh in everyone’s mind to try to solve those cases quickly,” he said., In looking to suburbs, his office sees problems with domestic violence, drug use and the related burglaries and thefts that drug addicts commit in order to get money for their next drug hit. He is looking to take a drug awareness program, now in the Hamilton school system, to every school district in the county, to both educate students about the dangers of drugs and how to get their friends’ help if they need it., Onofri’s career in law enforcement has spanned parts of two centuries. Technological innovations during that time, however, has made it necessary for prosecutors to meet the expectations of juries when cases go to trial., “I think the juries are demanding more from the prosecution,” Onofri said. “Let’s face it, we’re living in a video age. People like to see the surveillance tapes, they like to see the interviews that occurred [and] now with the advent of body cameras, they want to see it. And I think that that has been something that we’ve been adapting to and trying to become more technology advanced in the courtroom.”, In New Jersey this year, the state introduced bail reform, in a move to speed up the time authorities have to prosecute cases and change the way criminal defendants are held in custody., “New Jersey’s bail reform law puts safety first, eliminating a monetary bail system that allowed dangerous criminals to pay their way out of jail, often with proceeds of their crimes, while others charged with nonviolent offenses languished in jail because they were poor,” Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said in December before the law took effect., Among other things, authorities “generally” have 90 days to seek an indictment and 180 days to try someone who has been held in “pre-trial detention,” according to the state., The changes required the Prosecutor’s Office to hire 14 more staff members, also meaning court on weekends and holidays., “I think, so far, bail reform’s gone pretty smoothly,” Onofri said. “It has changed the way we’re doing business.”, “Everybody,” he said, “including the police departments, have been doing a very admirable job in making bail reform work in Mercer County.”,  

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