VANCOUVER, Wash. – A Clark County jury found a couple accused of keeping two autistic boys locked in a caged room not guilty of unlawful imprisonment Tuesday.
John Eckhart and his live-in girlfriend, Alayna Higdon, embraced for a long time after the verdict was read. They didn't speak to the media, but afterward Eckhart's attorney, Jon McMullen, said jurors saw the magnitude of what they faced – the boys' extreme behavior on a daily basis.
"If you take the perspective of a child with severe autism, and the parents who need to protect these kids, it's very different than applying the values, the ideas that we have with non autistic children, which would be I think what a lot of people at home are doing, and that's just frankly not applicable to this situation," he said.
As required in the state of Washington, the verdict was unanimous. The jury was evenly split between six men and six women.
During closing arguments, the prosecution and defense painted different pictures of Eckhart and Higdon, and jurors had to decide between two completely opposite interpretations of the same evidence.
The main questions that were presented during the trial: Were Eckhart and Higdon, loving parents who did the best they could under extremely trying circumstances that included raising the 5- and 7-year-old autistic boys who couldn't speak, weren't potty trained and banged their heads against walls while at the same time parenting an older boy and an infant?
Or were they guilty of unlawful imprisonment for confining the boys to a room furnished with only a bed where they put holes in the wall, picked at the drywall and ate some of it?
The couple's defense attorneys said the couple's arrest came out of pure ignorance, saying the boys were only in the locked room for short periods of time and that it was necessary to control their outbursts. They also said police rushed to judgment.
"It is not an ideal situation, but the stage is set for a perfect snap judgment made by someone who has no idea what is going on," said Higdon's lawyer, Brian Walker.
Prosecutors, however, argued inmates in jail get better treatment than the two boys did.
"Let's say they got out for a bath, let's say they got out for lunch, let's say they got out for dinner and let's say that was an hour each time. That's three hours in 24 (hours). People over in the jail, here they get out, they go have meals, they get out more than three hours," said prosecutor Scott Jackson.
The defense worked to convince the jury the couple was doing the best they could under difficult circumstances, pointing out the couple was poor and that Eckhart flunked out of special ed classes in the eighth grade.
The prosecution countered Eckhart was burned out taking care of his boys. They said he locked them in the room so he could play video games and smoke. They also portrayed Higdon as too busy with her new infant, her older son and her community college class load.
Defense attorneys showed home videos, which they said demonstrated the boys were in a loving home. Prosecutors countered the video showed the boys were well-behaved, which proved they didn't need to be locked in a caged room.
Prosecutors also had Higdon's 10-year-old son testify that he fed the boys through the bars, and they were locked in the room most of the day.
The prosecution was not allowed to bring up in court that the boys were not in any kind of school. The judge agreed with defense attorneys that would prejudice the jury.
The defense argued that the cage was just like a baby gate that is commonly used by parents, but the difference in the case was that it went all the way to the ceiling.
If the couple had been found guilty they faced up to five years of prison.
The verdict does not mean that Eckhart gets his boys back. That will be decided in family court.