CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - A New Jersey state trooper was found not guilty of vehicular homicide yesterday in the 2006 deaths of two Upper Township sisters.
The verdict for Officer Robert Higbee, 37, of Somers Point, was delivered in a courtroom packed with members of the victims' family and supporters of the policeman.
Both groups tried to follow the judge's instructions and contain their emotions as the jury forewoman read the panel's findings on the two counts, which could have sent Higbee to prison for 20 years. But some members of Higbee's family cried audibly as they heard the words "not guilty."
The jury was asked to decide whether the fatal collision of Higbee's police cruiser and the sisters' minivan on Sept. 27, 2006, was a tragic accident or the result of criminal negligence by the trooper.
Higbee's lawyer, D. William Subin, fought back tears as the 12 jurors were individually polled shortly after 5 p.m. yesterday. After hearing their responses, Higbee looked at the panel and said, "Thank you."
"Thank you all, and God bless you all," Subin said before the jury was dismissed.
The state troopers who packed the courtroom during the eight-week trial sat stone-faced. They did so, one said later, out of respect for the victims.
Maria Caiafa - whose daughters Jacqueline Becker, 17, and Christina Becker, 19, of Upper Township, were killed in the crash - showed no visible emotion. The verdict "meant nothing" to her, she said later.
Higbee was chasing a speeder in his patrol car around 10 p.m., without the emergency lights or sirens engaged, when he ran a stop sign at a reported 65 m.p.h. and slammed into the van driven by Jacqueline Becker at Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the Marmora section of the township.
The sisters had borrowed their grandmother's vehicle to go to a convenience store to buy milk for breakfast the next day. Both were killed instantly.
Higbee and the occupants of a third vehicle involved in the collision sustained minor injuries.
The case in Superior Court garnered national attention because it called into question Higbee's contention that he followed police procedure when he attempted to "close the gap" between himself and a speeder on the dark road outside Ocean City. Lights and sirens are not engaged until the last moment in order to lessen the likelihood of a police chase, a law-enforcement witness testified.
The case was also of interest to police officers and unions because much of the evidence the state presented against Higbee was obtained from the "black box" data recorder in his vehicle. The device gave investigators information about his speed, braking, and acceleration just before the accident.
Some speculated that it could have been a rehearing of Higbee's recollection of the accident that led the jury to its not-guilty finding.
Yesterday, the second full day of deliberation, the jury listened to a recitation of Higbee's daylong June 1 testimony. The panel had indicated that it wanted to hear Higbee's account of the moments just before the accident.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten determined that rather than hear an excerpt, the jurors would have to be read all of the more than four hours of Higbee's examination and cross-examination.
Less than 45 minutes after the task was completed and the jury had returned to the deliberation room, the panel sent word that a verdict had been reached. At the jurors' request, the court has not released their names and has said that they do not wish to speak to reporters.
After the verdict was read, Caiafa and Higbee held a private meeting in a room just outside the courtroom. Both declined to comment on their conversation.
"It's never been far from my mind, what happened on Sept. 27, 2006. I still think about it every day," Higbee said during a brief interview with gathered reporters outside the courthouse. "It's never going to be far from me. But the jury said what I have said all along: This was an accident and not a crime."
Subin built his case on the contention that Higbee followed police procedure when he pursued the speeder and that he did not intentionally harm anyone.
"This trooper was doing his duty," Subin said yesterday. "Now emergency responders won't have to be concerned that their actions will be second-guessed - or worse, that they could be brought up on charges on a crime they didn't commit. We're grateful that the jury could see that this was a tragic accident."
Subin called it a crime that charges were ever brought against Higbee and that the victims' family had to endure an "excruciating" trial.
"It was never going to change the sad fact that those two girls lost their lives," he said.
Several minutes later, the media throng turned its attention to Caiafa and the response from the victims' family.
"The verdict doesn't mean anything to me," said Caiafa, of Linwood, a middle-school principal. "It means more to the public than it means to me because the worst has happened to me. My children are dead. For me, what else is there?"
Caiafa said she would have preferred a guilty verdict because it might have led to a change in police procedures regarding chases and emergencies, which she said endanger the public's safety. Caiafa settled a $2 million lawsuit against Higbee and the state police last year.
"There needs to be some type of speeding cap on the pursuit laws," Caiafa said. "Going 79.6 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. residential zone is not acceptable."
"We need to change laws that treat citizens as collateral damage in police work," she said.
The trial was torture for her, Caiafa said.
"I had to sit there and listen to how my daughters died, over and over and over again. I have to wonder every day: Were they scared? Were they hurt? Were they upset? Did they see each other die? These are the thoughts that are in my head 24 hours a day," she said.
"Now I spend every waking moment pushing what I love out of my head because it causes me too much pain."
David Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, could not say whether Higbee would be compensated for the nearly two years he has been suspended without pay since his indictment. He said it is likely that Higbee would be reinstated.
"It was unfortunate that the family of the victims had to suffer through a trial like this of an officer that was only doing his job," Jones said. "The jury saw that Rob is an innocent man and this was a terrible accident."