VANCOUVER, Wash. -- The dad and his girlfriend accused of unlawful imprisonment for keeping two autistic boys in a caged bedroom were found not guilty by a jury Tuesday.
John Eckhart, 31, and Alayna Higdon, 27, of Vancouver, had said that the locked room was set up to protect the boys from harm. The children, ages 5 and 7, are Eckhart's sons.
The jury deliberated for less than 5 hours before reaching its decision.
Higdon broke down in tears when she testified in her own defense. "[It was] To keep them safe..so they wouldn't get hurt when we weren't immediately available," she said. During his closing arguments, Higdon's attorney praised the couple for taking on the responsibility to care for the boys.
A 10-year-old sibling testified that he regularly fed the younger siblings toaster waffles for breakfast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Sometimes, the meals were passed through a small gate into the room, sometimes it was open. He said his younger brothers were allowed outside twice a month and on holidays.
The prosecution had argued that the couple kept the two young autistic boys in a dark room with a cage-like door for convenience.
Photos showed the room's entry blocked with wire shelving that was bolted so that it covered the entire doorway and locked in the middle.
The couple hugged and cried in court when the not guilty verdict was read.