Judge weighs fate of truck driver accused in Cherry Hill crash that killed three

Posted: December 03, 2010

The fate of a New York tractor-trailer driver accused of being high on marijuana during a crash that killed three people in Cherry Hill is in the hands of a New Jersey judge.

Sheraz Khan, 42, of West Babylon, is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide and illegal possession of steroids that he consumed before the September 2008 accident. If Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Natal finds he drove recklessly, possibly while impaired by marijuana smoked shortly before the accident, Khan faces a potential 30 years in prison.

If not found to have been reckless - the requirement for a vehicular-homicide conviction - he could simply be found guilty of the steroid offense. In that case, Khan, who has no criminal history, could leave court next week facing only probation.

Khan was headed home about 10:40 a.m. in an 18-wheeler loaded with 12 tons of heavy machinery when he veered across northbound I-295 near the Route 70 overpass. He bounced across the grass median and hit two southbound vehicles.

Juma Rajab and passenger Renee Lesenko, both 44 and from Philadelphia, were in a produce truck. Lawrence M. Wright, 66, of Keller, Texas, was in a Volkswagen Beetle convertible. All three died instantly, authorities said. Khan sustained minor injuries when his truck jackknifed and rolled on its side.

Emergency workers, including local and state police, did not initially suspect Khan was under the influence. A blood sample taken eight hours later revealed the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, indicating that he had smoked marijuana. He also tested positive for steroids.

Khan elected to have a judge rather than a jury decide the case.

During the four-day trial, which ended Thursday in Camden, each side questioned its own toxicologist. The two authorities reached different conclusions about whether Khan had been impaired by marijuana.

"This was an accident," Cherry Hill defense attorney Peter Alfinito argued during his closing statement. Khan lost control when another driver cut him off, according to Alfinito, who maintained that the prosecutor had not proved that Khan was under the influence.

Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Judy Berry said that Khan had been reckless, and that his behavior after the accident and the blood analysis indicated that he had been under the influence of marijuana.

"Because of that impairment, he was not able to control that vehicle," Berry told the judge. "He caused the death of all three people."

Three drivers testified that it was a clear morning when they saw the truck, in the lane next to the shoulder, suddenly take off at a 45-degree angle and enter the southbound lanes.

Kimberly Mauroff of Cinnaminson said she had seen the accident in her rearview mirror. Tracy Geddis testified that she had picked up her boss at the airport and had been running ahead of schedule on their way to a meeting.

"We were enjoying the wonderful day," said Geddis, who described the accident as "surreal, like something out of a movie."

An emergency medical technician at the scene said Khan had shown no emotion and had a normal pulse and blood pressure. Kahn told the technician, Scott Martin, that he was thirsty and asked if he could go to his cab to get a bottle of water, Martin said.

Berry told the judge that there had been no water in the cab. She suggested that Kahn had wanted to retrieve a partly smoked marijuana cigarette, a stash of pot, pipes, and 39 steroid pills later recovered from the vehicle.

Kahn told police that he had bought the steroids from a "friend of a friend."

Forensic toxicologist John Siek said the THC in Khan's blood showed he had been severely impaired at the time of the crash. Siek said he believed Khan had smoked marijuana within hours of the crash.

A toxicologist for the defense, Richard Saferstein, testified that those who smoke marijuana "regularly" can maintain high TCH levels in the blood for several days. There was no way to prove when Khan last used the drug or whether he was impaired, Saferstein said.

Under state law, drivers are considered impaired with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more, but there is no set level of THC to legally determine if a driver is impaired by marijuana.

Authorities described how Kahn had nodded off in the police cruiser after the accident and appeared to have difficulty staying awake during his interview with police.

Though Khan previously violated federal law by exceeding the number of hours he was permitted to drive without sleeping, he told authorities that he had been in compliance on the day of the accident, having slept a full night before starting his drive that morning.

Berry pointed out that Khan had not had the proper medical clearance to drive a commercial truck and had not been wearing his seat belt. The judge is expected to return a verdict Wednesday.

Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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