Defendant justifies cage-like door

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Defendant Alayna Higdon testified today that a cage-like door that kept her live-in boyfriend's two autistic children from leaving their bedroom was installed less than two weeks before the boys were removed from the apartment.

Higdon, 27, said the original bedroom door had been ruined because the boys, then 5 and 7, would pound on it, kick it and beat their heads against it.

Initially, she and co-defendant John Eckhart, 31, planned to install a door with a clear plastic panel in it so the boys could see out of the room. But when Eckhart went to the store, he determined the plastic was too thin and they couldn't afford a thicker plastic.

Instead, she said, he bought wire shelving which he installed as a makeshift door.

As soon as the door was installed and the boys could see out of the room, they calmed down and were happier when they woke up in the morning, she said.

Even though she was given notice that maintenance workers would be coming to the couple's apartment in April 2011, she didn't think to remove the cage-like door.

"I knew the environment. I knew what it was used for," she told jurors.

"You didn't think you were doing anything wrong," said her attorney, Brian Walker.

"No," she said.

Maintenance workers alerted Child Protective Services, and police officers raided the couple's apartment on April 12, 2011.

Walker asked Higdon if she loved the boys.

"Yes I loved them," Higdon said. "I still love them."

Higdon and Eckhart are charged with unlawful imprisonment. If convicted, they face between one and three months in jail, although if a jury finds that there were aggravating factors they could face a longer sentence.

The case hinges on whether Eckhart and Higdon deliberately imprisoned the boys, or whether they took reasonable safety precautions because of the boys' autism.

Jon McMullen, who represents Eckhart, said he will call three witnesses this afternoon. Attorneys could give closing arguments today, but it's unlikely the jury would be kept late to start deliberations.

Instead, Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis would likely order jurors to report back Tuesday, as the Clark County Courthouse will be closed on Memorial Day.

The trial started May 21.

The oldest boy, who has a more severe form of autism, is in foster care, while the younger boy lives with his mother. The jury has heard testimony that both boys are doing better than they did while living with Higdon and Eckhart.