CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - New Jersey State Trooper Robert Higbee testified yesterday that he did not see a stop sign at the Upper Township intersection where two teenage sisters died after he plowed his police cruiser into their minivan in 2006.
"The last few frames in my mind are braking, looking, and darkness," Higbee said during an emotional day on the witness stand.
Higbee testified in his vehicular homicide trial in the deaths of Christina Becker, 19, and Jacqueline Becker, 17, of Upper Township, killed when he crashed into them while chasing a speeder.
After the impact, Higbee, who sustained minor injuries, said he went to check on the Beckers.
"I saw - I saw those girls in the van," he said, his voice faltering. "I saw that they had suffered massive head injuries."
Higbee's intention to testify seemed to surprise Judge Raymond Batten when the trial resumed for the first time since Thursday. Batten temporarily dismissed the jury and questioned Higbee on whether he wished to waive his right to remain silent.
Higbee, of Somers Point, is charged with double counts of vehicular homicide. The officer, who has been suspended from his job without pay, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He and the state police last year settled a civil lawsuit for $2 million filed by the teenagers' family.
The Beckers were returning home from a convenience store in their grandmother's van when the crash occurred about 10 p.m. on Sept. 27, 2006. The trooper has said he was chasing a suspect and did not see the sign at Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the Marmora section.
The jury must decide if the teenagers' deaths were a tragic accident or if Higbee was criminally reckless when he failed to stop at the intersection.
A vehicle data recorder inside the police vehicle clocked Higbee's speed at 65 m.p.h. when he entered the intersection. His car - which he was driving without using the siren or emergency lights - struck the minivan with such force that the Beckers were propelled through the passenger's side window. Both died instantly.
The tall, muscular trooper, who turned 37 yesterday, spent the entire day on the witness stand and is expected to undergo more questioning today.
"This is something I think about everyday," Higbee said when asked by his lawyer, D. William Subin, why he chose to testify. "I think about it when I'm alone and when I'm with my daughter."
"I've thought about it thousands of times and I've tried to figure out what happened," Higbee said in a steady voice, with tears in his eyes. "I need those answers just as much as some other people need those answers."
Subin questioned Higbee for more than four hours about his background, training, and recollection of the accident. The trooper was then cross-examined by Cape May County First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer.
Higbee said that he did not intentionally disregard the stop sign and did not have a reason to want to harm himself or anyone else. He was recently married at the time, he said, and had plans to start a family. He and his wife have since had a daughter, who is now 18 months old.
As Higbee made the statement, Maria Caiafa, the victims' mother, nodded her head. Caiafa sat in the front row of the gallery, just a few feet from the jury box, rather than in her usual spot three rows back.
The day's testimony elicited emotional responses from Caiafa and other members of the girls' family, who packed the courtroom weeping, holding hands, and rubbing their eyes.
Earlier in the day, Subin argued vigorously for Batten to allow Higbee to testify about what he recalled about the accident when he accompanied a state police investigator to the scene months later. Subin was permitted to question Higbee about the feelings he had when he returned there and his state of mind at the time of the accident.
"I quantify my life as 'before the accident' and 'after the accident,' " Higbee said. "I don't know if it's something I'll ever get past. But before the darkness that night, I know I had tried to do my job to the best of my ability."
The trial is in its seventh week. The prosecution called 15 witnesses before the defense began to present its case last week. Subin is expected to call several more defense witnesses this week, including experts on technical issues involving the crash.