CLEVELAND – A man accused of holding three women captive in his home for about a decade pleaded not guilty Wednesday to hundreds of rape and kidnapping charges, and the defense hinted at avoiding a trial with a plea deal if the death penalty were ruled out.
The death penalty is in play because among the accusations facing Ariel Castro, 52, is that he forced a miscarriage by one of the women, which is considered a killing under Ohio law. That charge doesn’t include a possible death penalty, but a prosecutor has said that’s under review.
The women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old. Each said they had accepted a ride from Castro, who remained friends with the family of one girl and even attended vigils over the years marking her disappearance.
Castro, dressed Wednesday in an orange jail outfit with his hands and ankles shackled and a full dark beard grown in jail, kept his chin tucked on his chest through a brief court appearance. He didn’t speak or glance at his two attorneys standing by his side.
Attorney Craig Weintraub acknowledged afterward that “certain charges in the indictment cannot be disputed” and said the defense was working to avoid an “unnecessary trial” with a possible death penalty sentence.
“Mr. Castro currently faces hundreds of years in prison with the current charges,” Weintraub said. “It is our hope that we can continue to work toward a resolution to avoid having an unnecessary trial about aggravated murder and the death penalty.”
The prosecutor’s office will look at the defense remarks but had no immediate comment, said Joe Frolik, spokesman for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty.
The 329-count indictment returned Friday covered only the period from August 2002, when the first of the women disappeared, to February 2007. More charges could be filed.
Castro was indicted on 139 counts of rape, 177 counts of kidnapping, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, three counts of felonious assault and one count of possession of criminal tools. He was also charged with two counts of aggravated murder related to one act, saying he purposely caused the unlawful termination of one of the pregnancies of one of the women.
Michelle Knight, now 32, has told investigators Castro punched her in the abdomen and starved her to force five miscarriages, according to police reports.
Ohio enacted a fetal homicide law in 1996, making it illegal to kill or injure a viable fetus. That law and similar ones in 37 other states have been used mainly to win convictions in car crashes in which pregnant women died or in cases involving attacks on expectant mothers.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for child rapes in which no death occurred, spelling out that a killing is the only crime eligible for the death penalty outside of a crime against the state.
A death penalty case against Castro “would raise serious legal questions about whether a murder has occurred and whether such a death sentence complies” with the Supreme Court ruling, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
Weintraub, the defense attorney, said he expects a decision from prosecutors on the death penalty might hinge on medical and forensic evidence, such as any fetal tissue that may have been found at the home. Investigations haven’t detailed what evidence was found.
The indictment alleges Castro repeatedly restrained the women, sometimes chaining them to a pole in a basement, to a bedroom heater or inside a van. It says one of the women tried to escape and he assaulted her with a vacuum cord around her neck.
A statement issued on behalf of the women said days like the arraignment “are not easy” and added: “We are hopeful for a just and prompt resolution. We have great faith in the prosecutor’s office and the court.”
Castro has been held on $8 million bail.
He was arrested May 6, shortly after one of the women broke through a door and yelled to neighbors for help.
She told a police dispatcher in a dramatic 911 call: “Help me. I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
The Associated Press does not usually identify people who may be victims of sexual assault, but the names of the three women were widely circulated by their families, friends and law enforcement authorities for years during their disappearances and after they were found.