Defense begins in child-imprisonment trial

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 24, 2012, 7:25 PM

 

Taking the stand late Thursday afternoon, defendant Alayna Higdon told jurors what they hadn’t yet heard in her four-day trial: about her loving family.

Higdon, smiling and laughing, talked about the early years of her blended family with fiancé and co-defendant, John Eckhart, 31. Things were far from awry when the couple moved in together in June 2009 at Vancouver’s Springfield Meadows apartments.

The 27-year-old said the family would take long drives together when the weather was nice. They’d also have slumber parties in the living room.

Higdon said Eckhart’s two autistic sons weren’t harming themselves at that point. There was no large, gate structure over the door.

“They have special needs, but they’re just kids,” Higdon said, apparently choking back tears as she added: “They’re amazing kids.”

She said that when her youngest son was born in 2010, more of the responsibilities for caring for the autistic boys, then 5 and 7, shifted to Eckhart. In the early years, Higdon said: “He was really close to them. I think he did really well with them at that point.”

But, as Higdon recounted to the jury, the boys became increasingly difficult after her son was born in 2010. The 5-year-old autistic boy would wander around the apartment at night, turn on the bath tub or eat inedible objects.

Higdon said she became increasingly busy, as she was a college student and also had a part-time job. She said she gave some of the responsibilities, such as preparing breakfast and lunch, to her then 9-year-old son.

“It made him feel good to help out?” defense attorney Brian Walker asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

Higdon’s testimony, which began about 4 p.m., was cut short before she talked about the circumstances that led to her and Eckhart’s criminal charges: the cage-style door that prosecutors said she and Eckhart kept the boys behind for hours out of convenience. Higdon and Eckhart are charged with unlawful imprisonment.

Higdon will retake the stand when the trial resumes this morning in Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis’ courtroom. Closing arguments are expected after the defense rests its case.

Before Higdon, the defense called several witnesses in an effort to refute the prosecution’s picture of stark conditions.

Defense attorney Jon McMullen called a Portland psychologist, Gary Adams, who testified that keeping autistic children in a “safe room,” as he called it, was more beneficial to those children’s safety than being able to move freely around the house.

About the cage-style door that Eckhart constructed out of wire shelving: “I think it’s amazing. I think it’s a great idea,” he said.

In cross-examination, the prosecution pointed out that Adams’ training and education in autism was in the 1970s.

Adams’ testimony was in sharp contrast to the prosecution’s two psychologists, who said confining special needs children could have an adverse effect on their psychological well-being.

Before Adams, a Tigard, Ore., speech therapist, Robert Buckendorf, said that many autistic children don’t understand consequences and often put themselves in harm’s way, such as crossing a busy street or wandering from an apartment. He said while he believes parents should be engaged, they also should have time to themselves. He said it’s fine to isolate children while a parent gets chores done or has a night out.

“Sometimes parents need to put kids in a safe room,” Buckendorf said.

That is also what people with autism want, he said: “I would say it’s fair to say people with autism prefer to be alone,” he said.

That’s contrary to what one of the prosecution’s psychologists said earlier Thursday morning.

“It’s a common misconception about autism that they just want to be alone,” said Seattle psychologist Allison Brooks. “They very often want to have a connection with people, but don’t know how.”