Couple acquitted in 'caged children' case
VANCOUVER -- Jurors took just four hours Tuesday to acquit a couple who had been charged with unlawful imprisonment for keeping two young autistic boys in a dark room with a cage-like door.
The Clark County Superior Court jury had been asked to decide whether John Eckhart, 31, and Alayna Higdon, 27, confined Eckhart's sons for convenience or to keep them safe.
The boys were 5 and 7 during the period in question. The older child is now in foster care while the younger lives with his biological mother in Tillamook, Ore.
Eckhart collapsed in his lawyer's arms at the verdict and Higdon began weeping, The Columbian reported (http://is.gd/LPlRFJ). Although they are no longer a couple, the two embraced.
The prosecution contended the children were locked up for convenience while Eckhart played video games and took long smoke breaks. Prosecutors alleged the couple kept the boys in the room at least 16 hours a day at times between October 2010 and April 2011.
For its part, the defense presented expert psychologists, who testified that the restraint was appropriate to keep the children safe because of their severe autism.
Eckhart and Higdon both took the stand and testified that the boys were kept in the room far less than the prosecution contended.
Photos showed Eckhart blocked the room's entry with wire shelving bolted so that it covered the entire doorway and locked in the middle with a carabiner-type lock. Police described it as a cage-like door.
Juror Michael Simonson told The Columbian outside the courtroom that most jurors had decided to acquit as soon as they began deliberating; one holdout juror eventually agreed with the others.
"I guess what distresses me is that this went this far, that this couldn't be resolved" earlier, Simonson said.
"We are obviously elated that in a lengthy, big trial the jurors came to a conclusion we came to a long time ago," defense lawyer Jon McMullen said, adding his clients didn't want to speak to reporters. The trial started May 21.
Higdon's 10-year-old son, James, was the chief prosecution witness. He testified that he fed the boys breakfast through slits of the wire shelving. He said they weren't let out of the room much of the time.
The defense presented evidence the boys were let out for dinner, games and special occasions, and questioned James' testimony.
On the stand, Eckhart disagreed with the older boy's estimate of how long the younger children spent in the room.
McMullen earlier told jurors that Eckhart understood how hyperactive his sons were, so he constructed the gate to cover 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."
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