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Trial opens for Wash. couple in caged kids case

A Washington state couple kept two young autistic boys in a dark room with a cage-like door for convenience, prosecutors told jurors Monday while the defense countered that the child-proofing was intended to keep the children from harming themselves.

The opening statements came as the trial of John Eckhart, 31, and Alayna Higdon, 27, opened in Clark County Superior Court. The Vancouver couple are charged with unlawful imprisonment of Eckhart's sons, ages 5 and 7, between October 2010 and April 2011.

Deputy Prosecutor Dustin Richardson said Eckhart was known to take hours-long smoking breaks, leaving the boys' 9-year-old older brother to watch them, The Columbian reported (http://is.gd/yRAMQO ). The prosecution also said the father played video games during the day. Higdon, a college student, was away from home most days.

However, defense lawyer Jon McMullen said the makeshift door was Eckhart's effort to increase the apartment's child safety after less-restrictive measures failed.

The boys could easily escape a baby gate and other restraints and were known to wander from the apartment at night, McMullen said.

Psychologists will testify that the makeshift gate was appropriate considering the boys' risk to themselves, McMullen added.

The boys were only let out of the room for treats and a daily bath, the deputy prosecutor said. The bedroom had no toys, no light and only a child-sized race car bed without bedding.

Richardson said he planned to present evidence that the boys are now able to function properly without being locked up. The older child is in a foster home, while the younger lives with his biological mother in Tillamook, Ore.

During a pre-trial hearing Monday, the defense asked the judge to bar witnesses from using the terms "cage" and "cage-like door."

"There was no cage. This was just a bedroom with a modified door," McMullen said.

Judge Robert Lewis said he wasn't going to micromanage what words witnesses can use.

Photos show 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.

Conviction for unlawful imprisonment carries a standard sentencing range of one to three months in jail.

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Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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