A New Jersey state trooper was found not guilty of vehicular homicide today in the 2006 deaths of two Upper Township sisters.
Officer Robert Higbee, 37, of Somers Point, was chasing a speeder when he ran a stop sign at a reported 65 m.p.h. and broadsided a minivan driven by Jacqueline Becker, 17, at the intersection of Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the Marmora section of Upper Township.
Becker and her sister Christina, 19, of Upper Township, were killed instantly on Sept. 27, 2006.
The case in Superior Court garnered national attention because of its implications involving police pursuits and because much of the evidence used against Higbee came from the "black box" data recorder in his police vehicle. The device gave investigators compelling information about his speed, braking and acceleration just before the crash.
Higbee was driving so fast - without emergency lights or sirens, according to witnesses - that the impact of the crash propelled the sisters through the vehicle's passenger-side window.
In his closing statement, defense lawyer D. William Subin told the jury the state had failed to prove its case because it did not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Higbee was deliberately reckless when he disregarded the stop sign. The occupants of a third vehicle involved in the crash, a father and son, were not injured.
"You have to ask yourself: What makes this a criminal offense? What changes this from being a terrible accident into a criminal act?" said Subin, who had argued that the five-year state police veteran was going by the book in the performance of his duties. Subin called 39 character witnesses and an amnesia expert to the stand.
Higbee testified he had passed a driver who was traveling in the opposite direction on Stagecoach Road at 65 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone. He said he turned his patrol car around and attempted to "close the gap" between himself and the speeder. Not to turn on emergency lights or sirens until closing in on a speeder is routine, Higbee said.
Subin called the Beckers' deaths a "ghastly consequence," but he implored the jury to conclude that the crash was a "tragic mistake" and not criminal negligence.
"We can't assume criminal wrongdoing in this case. That's not fair, that's not just," he said.
During his daylong testimony on Monday, Higbee said that he did not remember seeing the stop sign at Tuckahoe Road. At the time, he said, he was concentrating on the next stop sign about two-tenths of a mile ahead at Roosevelt Boulevard.
Cape May County First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer said in his closing the state had met the burden of proof for vehicular homicide, most significantly to show that Higbee's conduct had grossly deviated from what a reasonable officer would have done and that he had consciously disregarded the substantial risk that his actions could result in death.
"The defendant said he saw the flickering tail lights of the speeding car at the Tuckahoe Road intersection," Meyer told the jury. "That confirms his awareness of his approach to that intersection."