Trial opens for Vancouver couple accused of imprisoning boys

Pair say closed room was safe place; state says they found kids inconvenient

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 21, 2012, 8:29 PM

 
photoJohn Eckhart listens to his attorney, Jon McMullen, Monday in Clark County Superior Court.

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“Convenience, computer games and extended smoke breaks” are what led a Vancouver couple to imprison two young autistic boys in a dark room for hours on end, a deputy prosecutor told jurors on Monday.

When an apartment maintenance worker conducted a routine premises check and found the children, “he didn’t observe the boys doing anything to harm themselves. There was no damage to property, no reason for these boys to be kept in the room,” Deputy Prosecutor Dustin Richardson said.

However, the defense suggested the child-proofing was intended to protect severely autistic boys who routinely harmed themselves, including bashing their heads through windows, jumping from furniture and wandering from the apartment.

The confinement was “not a matter of convenience, but a matter of safety,” said Jon McMullen, one of two defense attorneys.

The opening statements came on the first day of the trial of John Eckhart, 31, and Alayna Higdon, 27. The couple are charged with unlawful imprisonment of Eckhart’s sons, ages 5 and 7, between Oct. 1, 2010, and April 12, 2011.

Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis is presiding over the trial, which is expected at last through Thursday.

The case hinges on whether Eckhart and Higdon deliberately imprisoned the boys, or whether they took reasonable safety precautions because of the boys’ autism. Autism is defined as a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in social interaction and communication skills.

The prosecution and defense plan to call psychologists with opposing views on what is reasonable restraint.

Richardson said Eckhart was known to take hours-long smoking breaks every day, as the boys were watched by their older brother, who was 9. Eckhart also was known to play video games during the day, Richardson said. Higdon, a college student, was away from home most days.

The boys were kept in the room during meal times and let out only for treats and a daily bath, the deputy prosecutor said. There were no toys in the bedroom, no light and only a child-sized race car bed without bedding.

Richardson said he planned to present evidence that the boys are now able to function properly without being locked up. The elder of the two is in a foster home, while the younger lives with his biological mother in Tillamook, Ore.

“He’s easily redirected and doing quite well,” Richardson said of the youngest boy, while saying the older has a more severe form of autism, but is faring better than he had at home.

In his opening statement, McMullen told jurors that the boys were locked in the room for their safety, and that the makeshift cage door was Eckhart’s last-ditch effort at increasing the child safety of the house.

McMullen said his client tried less-restrictive measures, such as using a baby gate, but the boys could easily escape and were known to wander from the apartment at night.

He said psychologists will testify that the makeshift gate was appropriate considering the boys’ risk to themselves.

“On its face, a concept of a gate — a big baby gate — for kids to see and hear is not a problem,” McMullen said.

In his opening statement for Higdon, defense attorney Brian Walker reiterated McMullen’s defense. Walker said the boys had the mental and emotional maturity of a 1- and 2-year-old and required the added measures.

“Child-proofing doesn’t end with kids like that,” Walker said. “It continues.”

What Eckhart had constructed was wire shelving bolted so that it covered the entire doorway and locked in the middle with a carabiner-type latch. Police described it as a cage-like door.

The terms “cage” and “cage-like door” drew exasperation from the defense during a pretrial hearing Monday morning. McMullen asked the judge not to allow witnesses to use the term.

“There was no cage. This was just a bedroom with a modified door,” McMullen said. “It was something that one police officer coined and the media latched on to.”

The judge told McMullen he wasn’t going to micromanage what words each witness used.

Unlawful imprisonment carries a standard sentencing range of one to three months in jail. If the jury decides there were aggravating factors, a judge could impose a sentence above the standard range.

Laura McVicker: http://twitter.com/col_courts; http://facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.