CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - In a surprise move, New Jersey State Trooper Robert Higbee took the stand in his own defense at his vehicular homicide trial for the deaths of two teenage sisters killed when he ran a stop sign while chasing a suspect in 2006.

Higbee, who turned 37 years old today, didn't seem to be in a celebratory mood as he spent about three hours under direct questioning by his lawyer D. William Subin recounting his training as a New Jersey State Trooper and what happened the night of the accident.

His testimony is expected to continue this afternoon with more questioning about his actions the night Christina Becker, 19, and her sister Jacqueline Becker, 17, were killed instantly at the intersection of Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the Marmora section of Upper Township.

Higbee said he had been persuing a speeder when the crash occurred.

"The last few frames in my mind are braking, looking and darkness," Higbee testified about the moments just before the crash.

An event data recorder inside his patrol car indicated Higbee was traveling at 65 mph when he struck the white minivan being driven by Jacqueline Becker. The van was struck with such force that the girls were propelled through the passsenger side window.

Higbee has been suspended from the State Police without pay pending the outcome of the trial If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Higbee's presence on the stand this morning appeared to be a surprise to Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten, who had assembled the jury inside the courtroom to begin the days proceedings. When Subin announced that he would be calling Higbee to take the stand, the jury had to be temporarily dismissed from the courtroom so the judge could swear in the witness.

The mother of the two girls killed in the accident, Maria Caiafa, took a seat in the front row of the gallery this morning, just a few feet from the jury box, rather than her usual spot about three rows back. Much of Higbee's testmony this morning has elicited an emotional response from Caiafa, with her intermitantly weeping and holding her face in her hands.