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Driver pleads not guilty to hit-and-run that killed NYPD officer; police investgating if officer drew gun

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ELIZABETH, N.J. - A man charged with a hit-and-run that killed an off-duty NYPD officer made his first court appearance Wednesday. William Espinal-Mejia, 35, pleaded not guilty through a Spanish interpreter. 

He turned himself into police after allegedly leaving the scene of an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed off-duty NYPD officer Vincent Harrison, 25.

New Jersey State Police are investigating whether the dead officer may have pulled out his gun out just before being struck.

 The crash happened just after 3 a.m. on Sunday. Harrison was standing outside of his car on I-95 in Elizabeth, just after colliding with an SUV. A witness said Officer Harrison exchanged words with the SUV's driver and then drew his gun. Immediately after, Mejia struck him as he was driving down the turnpike.

“After it happened, Mr. Espinal-Mejia exited his vehicle to attend aid to the fallen individual," said Mejia’s attorney, Victor Rotolo. "At which point a tractor-trailer came down and started to jack-knife. It was just a very, very dangerous situation. He had his wife and cousin in the car. And he made a decision to leave.”

 Mejia’s attorney asked Judge Brenda Coppola Cuba to reduce bail, so Mejia could continue to work to support his wife and 11-year-old son. His wife, Elizabeth Mejia, was in the courtroom today. When asked about the night of the crash, she declined to answer.

 “No comment, please speak to my lawyer,” she said.

 An assistant prosecutor for Union County argued that the evidence against Mejia is compelling: police found pieces of Officer Harrison’s clothing stuck to Mejia’s car; Mejia's car was found to be damaged when police visited his house; and there is video of his car fleeing the area, said the prosecutor.

“He left. He didn’t pull over somewhere further down and make a phone call. He didn’t get off the highway and make a phone call. He didn’t drive to a police station,” argued Assistant Union County Prosecutor Robert Rosenthal.

Rosenthal asked the Judge Cuba to keep Mejia’s bail at $100,000 dollars.

 She keep Mejia’s bail as-is, but Mejia does have the option to pay 10% cash to get out of jail. His attorney told the court that he intends to do so.

Mejia is due back in court on April 6th. The New Jersey State Police investigation into the crash and Officer Harrison’s actions just before his death is ongoing.