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Fellow troopers showed support throughout trial

Shortly after Trooper Robert Higbee heard the "not guilty" verdict that ended his vehicular-homicide trial yesterday, he turned around and scanned the crowd behind him.

Shortly after Trooper Robert Higbee heard the "not guilty" verdict that ended his vehicular-homicide trial yesterday, he turned around and scanned the crowd behind him.

"Thank you very much," he said to a courtroom packed with law enforcement officers.

Higbee smashed into a minivan after running a stop sign during a high-speed pursuit in 2006, killing two sisters. The case touched a nerve with his fellow officers, who showed up in droves to watch a trial that could have ended with a 20-year prison sentence.

"We're all friends of his," Lt. Tom King said. "It's the right thing to do."

A rotating cast of 60 state troopers filled the seats every day inside the Cape May County courthouse during Higbee's trial, lending constant support. As word spread yesterday afternoon that a verdict was near, the ranks swelled to full capacity.

"There are actually more troopers than there are seats," Dave Jones, president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, said at one point as he surveyed the scene.

For weeks, about 40 troopers could be seen inside the courtroom at all times, far outweighing the handful of family members surrounding Maria Caiafa, the victims' mother.

Jones said he thought the troopers' presence in the courtroom likely had less impact on the jury than the presence of the victims' family but was still important in establishing Higbee's character.

"It's a testimony to the person that Rob is; it's testimony to the chilling effect a [guilty verdict] in this case could've had," he said.

The officers came over during their off-duty hours, Jones said. Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the state police, visited Higbee and his family several times, often at night since he was too busy to attend the trial during the day, Jones added.

As the verdict was read, the capacity courtroom fell silent. Despite getting the result they desired, troopers said they decided to restrain any emotional outburst and leave quietly out of respect for the victims and their family. A couple of minutes after the verdict, Higbee and Caiafa met privately in a nearby office.

Each day of the trial, Jones said, his organization picked up Higbee, his family, and his lawyers to drive them to and from the courthouse.

While some in law enforcement took issue with the prosecution's use of an in-vehicle data recorder to detail Higbee's speed and braking leading up to the crash, Jones said he did not believe Higbee should have been charged in the first place.

Jones accused the prosecutor of "cherry-picking" Higbee's case and politicizing it.

"The guy made an honest mistake and missed a stop sign," he said as the jury deliberated. "It's not just me - law enforcement everywhere is appalled."

Jones said he was contacted about the case by members of law enforcement agencies from Alaska, California, Oklahoma, and Maine, many of whom called to offer congratulations within an hour of the verdict.

"All these fellow law enforcement officers are saying: 'What the hell is going on in Cape May?' " he said. "It's a mystery to me, too."

Though some cautioned law enforcement must straddle the line between self-interest and appearing to downplay the tragedy, support for Higbee was wide-ranging.

Jim Ryan, spokesman for the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, said the group, which does not typically represent troopers, sent members to fund-raisers organized by the Fraternal Association to help pay Higbee's court fees.

"We will support the other law enforcement union when they have a cause that they believe needs our support," Ryan said.

Sgt. Stephen Jones, a state police spokesman, said Higbee's trial was unprecedented among state troopers.

"I think what you're seeing is support for a brother in arms, a family member," he said.