“I don’t remember them ever being out,” Alice Higdon said Tuesday, breaking into tears when asked how often she saw two autistic boys outside their locked room.
The mother of one of the defendants, Alayna Higdon, took the stand on the second day of trial of Higdon, 27, and her boyfriend, John Eckhart, 31. She first told jurors she routinely stopped by her daughter’s apartment about twice a month. When Higdon and Eckhart first moved into the Springfield Meadows apartments off Andresen Road, Alice Higdon said, the boys were just kept behind a baby gate.
The security measures increased to wire shelving bolted so that it covered the entire doorway of the boys’ sparse bedroom in early 2011.
“They were pretty much back there every time I went,” she said.
In cross-examination, however, defense lawyers picked apart Alice Higdon’s testimony, saying she had said in pre-trial interviews that she came to the couple’s home only about five or six times over a year.
The lawyers also hinted at a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship and said defendant Alayna Higdon didn’t want to be around her mother because the mother frequently smoked marijuana.
The prosecution responded that Alice Higdon has a medical marijuana card.
Pressed by the defense lawyers, Alice Higdon shifted her testimony to say she saw the boys, then 5 and 7, outside the room about three times, on special occasions.
“Bottom line, Ms. Higdon: You have no idea how often the boys were out of the room,” defense attorney Jon McMullen asked.
“No, I wasn’t there,” Alice Higdon said.
The case hinges on whether Higdon and Eckhart imprisoned Eckhart’s sons out of convenience, so that Eckhart could take long smoke breaks and play video games, or whether the couple were forced to take the security measures because of what the defense said is the children’s severe autism. The couple contends the boys would have harmed themselves if not restrained.
Both defendants are charged with unlawful imprisonment, a Class C felony, with the aggravating factor that the boys were especially vulnerable because of their disorder. Unlawful imprisonment carries a sentencing range of one to three months in jail, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison with aggravating factors.
Also testifying for the prosecution was the biological mother of the boys, Jona Bronson. She left the children when they were babies, but is now caring for the younger son at her Tillamook, Ore., home. Bronson said her son is doing much better now that he’s in school and taking medication.
“At first, he was really hyperactive,” Bronson said.
“Has it improved now?” Deputy Prosecutor Dustin Richardson asked.
“Yes. Things are really well,” she said.
After Bronson, one of the boys’ special education teachers, David Goodell, also testified that the boy is getting better at communicating with adults and peers and meets his grade level requirements for shapes and math.
“I have never noticed any self-harm issues,” Goodell said.
The trial is expected to last at least through Thursday. The boys’ older brother is expected to take the stand for the prosecution today, as are psychologists who will argue against the necessity of the gated room.
Then, the defense is expected to call psychologists to oppose that argument and testify that locking up severely autistic children is reasonable restraint.