A New York man whose blood revealed evidence of marijuana use was found guilty Wednesday of killing three people on I-295 in Cherry Hill in 2008 when his tractor-trailer veered into oncoming traffic.
Sheraz Khan, 42, of West Babylon, was convicted on the most serious charges - three counts of vehicular homicide - and other offenses, including careless driving and possession of marijuana and steroids.
Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Natal found Khan not guilty of driving under the influence. Toxicology experts disagreed during the trial whether it could be proven that Khan was impaired at the time of the crash from smoking marijuana.
But in a 54-page ruling, Natal said the combined circumstances - which also included lack of sleep, steroid use, and improper medical credentials for a commercial driver - indicated that Khan was a "risk-taker" who behaved recklessly Sept. 11, 2008.
Khan was driving home about 10:40 a.m. in an 18-wheeler loaded with 12 tons of heavy machinery. Witnesses said the truck veered at a 45-degree angle across northbound I-295 near the Route 70 overpass, and bounced across the grass median before hitting two southbound vehicles.
Philadelphians Juma Rajab and Renee Lesenko, both 44, were in a box truck. Lawrence M. Wright, 66, of Keller, Texas, was in a Volkswagen Beetle convertible. All died instantly, authorities said. Khan sustained minor injuries when his jackknifed truck rolled on its side.
Khan elected to have a nonjury trial, which concluded last Thursday in Camden. He faces a possible 30-year prison sentence, but is more likely to receive three concurrent 10-year sentences, the judge said.
Khan, who had no criminal history, hoped to avoid conviction for vehicular homicide, which required the judge to rule that he drove recklessly. If found guilty of the lesser charges alone, he could have left court facing only probation.
"We're disappointed," Cherry Hill defense attorney Peter Alfinito said of the verdict, but he noted that Natal is a fair and well-respected judge.
It was a somber morning in the courtroom as relatives for the victims sat stoically in the gallery, not far from Khan's family. Khan showed no emotion after hearing his verdict, but some of his relatives left the courtroom weeping.
Outside the building, Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Judy Berry said a combination of things Khan did before he got into his vehicle constituted recklessness. In addition to smoking marijuana prior to driving, she noted that Khan was not wearing a seat belt.
Police found marijuana and illegally obtained steroids in Khan's truck. His medical verification was missing and his driving log had been falsified.
Authorities estimated that Khan was driving about 65 m.p.h. and never tried to brake. The impact broke the Volkswagen into pieces.
New Jersey law does not set a legal definition for being under the influence of marijuana as it does for alcohol.
Emergency workers, including local and state police, did not initially suspect Khan was under the influence. The blood sample was taken eight hours later and revealed the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), indicating that he had used marijuana. Kahn also tested positive for steroids.
The state presented a toxicology expert who concluded Khan had smoked marijuana within hours of the crash and was severely impaired. The defense countered with an expert who said those who smoke the drug regularly can maintain a high level of THC for days. It was impossible to determine when Khan last smoked, he concluded.
Khan lost control of the truck when another driver cut him off, his attorney said. Witnesses testified they did not see another vehicle pull in front of the truck and video from surveillance cameras along the highway contradicted Khan's version.
Three drivers testified that it was a clear morning when they saw the truck, in the outside lane, cross the highway as if the driver had fallen asleep.
An emergency medical technician at the scene said Khan showed no emotion and had a normal pulse and blood pressure. Other rescue workers said he appeared tired, and nodded off as he was questioned.
He had glassy eyes and asked to go to his cab for a bottle of water.
During the trial, Berry told the judge that there had been no water in the cab and suggested Khan had wanted to retrieve a partly smoked marijuana cigarette, stash of marijuana, pipes, and 39 steroid pills recovered from the vehicle.
Khan told police at the time that he had bought the steroids illegally.
In his opinion, the judge wrote, Khan drove more hours than allowed by law in the days before the accident.
He "did not care if he complied with the law requiring rest periods. He continued to drive and lied about it in the log books," Natal said. "Mr. Khan did not get proper rest; he continued to nod off to sleep after the accident, on the drive to the police barracks, and on the way and back from the hospital."
At the time of the accident, Khan told authorities he was in compliance with federal regulations and had slept a full night before starting his drive that morning.
After the ruling, Khan was permitted to remain free on $350,000 bail until sentencing Feb. 11.