CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - The fate of a New Jersey state trooper charged with vehicular homicide in the 2006 deaths of two Upper Township sisters was placed in the hands of a Cape May County jury yesterday following closing arguments in the seven-week-old trial.
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.
The case in Superior Court has 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.
A witness testified that when the police car raced past her home on Stagecoach Road a few seconds before the impact, she heard a loud "whoosh" from inside the house.
After hearing testimony from more than 50 witnesses, the 12 jury members - whom lawyers took more than two weeks to pick - now must decide whether Higbee's actions on the night of Sept. 27, 2006, were criminally negligent. If convicted on both counts, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
In his closing statement, defense lawyer D. William Subin told the jury that 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 that 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.
But the electronic vehicle recorder in his police car indicated that Higbee's speed was about 80 m.p.h. on the relatively short stretch of road and that he applied his brakes in a series of pedal taps near a traffic sign that warned of a stop ahead. The device indicated that Higbee's vehicle accelerated to 65 m.p.h. on entering the intersection.
Cape May County First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer said in his closing that 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."
Meyer said the jury should also consider a contradiction in Higbee's testimony. Several weeks after the accident, Meyer said, Higbee told state police investigators that he had stopped and looked both ways before entering the intersection. In his court testimony, following inclusion of the black-box evidence, he didn't make the same assertion, the prosecutor said.
"You must do what justice demands in this case, and you must find him guilty," Meyer said.
The jury is scheduled to reconvene today.