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News / Clark County News

Jury acquits couple in ‘caged kids’ trial

Jurors find they acted out of concern for autistic boys' safety

By Laura McVicker
Published: May 29, 2012, 5:00pm

After hearing they had been acquitted late Tuesday afternoon of unlawful imprisonment for keeping two autistic boys locked in a room, John Eckhart collapsed in his attorney’s arms, while Alayna Higdon began weeping.

After the six-day trial, the panel of six men and six women deliberated for four hours before deciding the Vancouver couple’s restraint of the young boys was reasonable for their safety.

“It was a fair decision,” a juror said, as she left the courtroom.

Another juror, Michael Simonson, said outside the courtroom that most of the jurors had decided to acquit as soon as they began deliberating, save for one holdout juror who eventually agreed with the others. Verdicts in criminal cases have to be unanimous.

Simonson said he felt the case had been blown out of proportion.

“I guess what distresses me is that this went this far — that this couldn’t be resolved” earlier, Simonson said.

After hearing the jury’s decision, Eckhart and Higdon, who are no longer dating, embraced as Higdon cried. The two then hugged family members seated behind them before leaving the courtroom quickly. Defense attorney Jon McMullen said the two did not wish to speak to the media.

On their behalf, McMullen told reporters: “We are obviously elated that in a lengthy, big trial the jurors came to a conclusion we came to a long time ago.”

The fate of the children has yet to be determined. Child custody cases are heard by a family law judge following the conclusion of a criminal case. One is in foster care while the other is living with his biological mother.

Prosecutors had alleged the couple locked the boys in a room behind wire shelving bolted to the door out of convenience while Eckhart played video games and took long smoke breaks. They charged the two with unlawful imprisonment, alleging that Higdon and Eckhart kept the boys behind the gate for at least 16 hours each day at times between October 2010 and April 2011.

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The jury was given instructions that a defense to unlawful imprisonment is if the person has legal authority to keep another person restrained.

The defense presented expert psychologists who testified that the restraint was appropriate to keep the children safe because of their severe autism. Both defendants also took the stand and testified that the boys, ages 5 and 7, were kept in the room for far less time than what the prosecution contended.

The case went to the jury at lunchtime.

As the prosecution and defense told the jurors in closing arguments, the case hinged on how long the boys were kept in the room and whether it was justified considering their hyperactivity.

Testimony differed on both points. The prosecution’s chief witness was Higdon’s 10-year-old son, James, who testified that he fed the boys breakfast through slits of the wire shelving. He testified that the boys weren’t let out of the room much of the time.

The defense offered evidence that the boys were let out for dinner, games and special occasions. It questioned James’ testimony.

Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson asked jurors to use common sense in deciding a verdict. He said there was minimal evidence of the boys causing harm to themselves or others when they were let out of the room.

“What’s reasonable doesn’t mean what was reasonable to Eckhart and Higdon, but what is reasonable to most people,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he estimated, by James’ testimony, the boys were only out of the room for three hours total during the day.

“People here in the jail … they get out for more than three hours,” he said.

Defense attorneys Brian Walker and McMullen said the situation was different than how it was described by the prosecution. Eckhart was a good father who put them in the room as a precaution, the defense argued. When he earlier took the stand, Eckhart disagreed with 10-year-old James’ testimony of the duration the boys were in the room.

Walker said life for the couple became more hectic after Higdon gave birth to her youngest son and attended college. Eckhart was in charge of watching the kids at home. He disagreed with the prosecution’s portrayal of him taking long, frequent smoke breaks. He pointed out that even 10-year-old James said the smoke breaks were short.

“I didn’t see a speck of convenience in this case,” Walker said.

When it was his turn to give a closing argument, McMullen struck the same point.

“I can’t think of anything more inconvenient than raising severely autistic kids for 24 hours a day,” he said.

McMullen said Eckhart understood how hyperactive his sons were, so he constructed the gate over the door, so they weren’t at risk to harming themselves and wandering from the apartment. He described his client as “an overprotective, caring father.”

Both defense attorneys felt the case was initially sensationalized by police officers and media, who frequently described it as the “caged kids case.”

Walker said the response was a sign of how many people don’t understand autism.

“There is one word that got us here. That word is ignorance,” he said.

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