CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - The acquittal Monday of a New Jersey state trooper on two counts of vehicular homicide hinged on his characterization as a respected, by-the-book officer - and, possibly, on the trial's conservative Cape May County venue, legal observers theorized yesterday.
Robert Higbee was charged in connection with the deaths of Upper Township sisters Jacqueline Becker, 17, and Christina Becker, 19, whose minivan he rammed after he ran a stop sign at Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the township's Marmora section on Sept. 27, 2006.
The five-year state police veteran testified that he was trying to catch a speeder and had not employed his siren or emergency lights. A "black box" device in Higbee's cruiser recorded his speed at about 65 m.p.h. at the moment of impact. Before the crash, he reached nearly 80 m.p.h. in the residential 35 m.p.h. zone, according to the device.
The jury of seven men and five women was asked to decide whether the Beckers' deaths was a tragic accident or the result of criminal recklessness for which Higbee should spend up to 20 years in prison.
Many in the legal and law enforcement communities followed the eight-week trial because of its implications for officers involved in high-speed pursuits. Also of interest was inclusion of evidence from the black-box recorder, which the defense had sought to suppress.
"I'm not sure this case should have been presented for indictment in the first place," said defense lawyer Mike Pinsky of Haddon Township.
"The prosecutor did what he thought was right and brought the case against the police officer, but ultimately the system worked. The jury saw that this was an accident, not a crime," said Pinsky, who is chairman of the Camden County Bar Association's Criminal Practice Committee.
The prosecution had a relatively high burden of proof, he said. The chain of events that led to the collision might have been "bad judgment on the part of the police officer, but I think the jury probably didn't find the degree of wanton and willful disregard for human life they needed to find for a guilty verdict," Pinsky said.
Gary Andress, 68, of Cape May, was excused from the jury because of a family issue after hearing two weeks of testimony. He said he felt early on that Higbee would be found not guilty.
"From my own experience, what I saw up until that point . . . I thought he would be acquitted," said Andress, who kept up with the televised trial. Seeing the later witnesses and experts "just confirmed what I thought," he said.
A female juror from Upper Township, who said she was familiar with the intersection, said she felt confident about the panel's decision.
"I did not think that this trooper was guilty of a crime," said the woman, who did not want to be identified.
Defense lawyer D. William Subin contended that charges should not have been brought against Higbee, who he said did nothing deliberately wrong. According to defense witnesses, it is police procedure to "close the gap" between an officer and a speeder before using sirens or lights in order to minimize the chance of a dangerous, high-speed chase.
"This was an extremely unusual case. It is almost surreal," Subin said yesterday amid a swirl of day-after interviews with media outlets, including cable channel TruTV, which telecast the trial.
"All along, I felt like this was an intelligent jury and they were going to come forth with a not-guilty verdict," Subin said. "They were able to see that this was a terrible accident, not a crime."
Cape May County First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer said that the state was disappointed not to get a conviction. The accident might still inspire members of law enforcement to be "a little more circumspect" in the commission of their duties, he said yesterday.
Maria Caiafa, the mother of the victims, said Monday that she bore no animosity toward Higbee but that she believed that his actions were reckless.
"I don't think 79.6 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone should ever be excusable and accepted as what a reasonable officer would do," said Caiafa, a middle-school principal.
Philip Anthony, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles jury-consulting firm DecisionQuest, said the state's biggest challenge to getting a guilty verdict might have been Higbee himself. On the stand, the clean-cut former professional athlete came off as an upstanding, well-regarded trooper who was doing his job as he had been trained.
Anthony, whose firm has been involved in more than 1,000 cases over 30 years, said that in a place like Cape May County, the trial's outcome was not surprising. The county - whose voters are registered about 40 percent Republican, 21 percent Democratic, and about 39 percent non-affiliated - has a tradition of voting conservatively.
"Most jurors in most places hold law enforcement officers in high esteem," Anthony said. "In conservative areas, that is even more so."
Thirty-nine character witnesses testified on Higbee's behalf, and there was no apparent abuse of power by Higbee as a state trooper, Anthony said. Coupled with the conservative backdrop, the evidence weighed in the officer's favor, Anthony said.
What mattered most, he said, was "the sense the jury got of whether the person abused [his] power at some level. In this case, he did not."