State Trooper Robert Higbee faced 20 years in prison if convicted of vehicular homicide, but jurors were convinced that it was no more than a tragic accident when his cruiser ran a stop sign during a chase and rammed into a minivan, killing two sisters.
“Thank you very much,” Higbee told fellow law enforcement officers who packed the Cape May County courtroom yesterday.
To their credit, there was no outburst from the troopers when the “not guilty” verdict was read. They respectfully left quietly.
Later, Higbee met privately with the victims’ mother.
Prosecutors during the seven-week trial relied, in part, on the data recorder in the cruiser to replay the deaths repeatedly.
Had they wanted to, jurors could have convicted Higbee of death by auto, which carries a 10-year prison sentence.
But they found him innocent of any wrongdoing in the September 2006 deaths of Jacqueline Becker, 27, and her sister, 19-year-old Christina, in Cape May County’s Upper Township.
Maria Caiafa, the girls’ mother, said the verdict suggests that officers can kill people by making mistakes and not be held accountable.
Meanwhile, police in New Jersey and nationwide cited the potential for making officers hesitate while protecting the public, afraid to make a mistake that produces an unintended outcome.
“I truly feel for the family of the girls because I’m sure they feel more victimized,” one officer said. “But I hope they realize our job entails certain risks. He didn’t blow the sign on purpose.”
“The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office is a disgrace for what they did,” said another. “At the same time and as a parent, my heart goes out to the mom and family of the two girls. I will say a prayer for them too.”
“It was a horrible and unfortunate tragedy. However, the right decision was made,” said a police officer from Passaic County, who also extended heartfelt wishes to Higbee and the girls’ mom. “Once again, that tragedy could happen to any of us. We just have to learn from this experience and be even more careful out there.”
Troopers filled seats every day — five dozen of them at a time — an unprecedented turnout during what their union said was their off hours. In addition, State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes visited Higbee and his family several nights, union officials said.
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