Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ariel Castro pleads guilty to 900 counts in Cleveland kidnappings

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CLEVELAND — Ariel Castro, who repeatedly sexually abused three women he held prisoner for about a decade, formally pleaded guilty Friday to more than 900 counts of criminal behavior.

The Cleveland bus driver accepted a plea deal that will keep him in prison for the rest of his life but will spare him the death penalty.

During more than two hours of televised proceedings, Castro, 53, firmly answered a barrage of questions from Judge Michael J. Russo ensuring that he knew what was coming.

Unlike previous appearances in court, Castro appeared engaged, looking up at the judge rather than down at the floor and speaking clearly. He wore glasses for the first time and said he was able to see his surroundings.

The result was inevitable, Castro told the court. He said he knew after his arrest May 6 that he was "going to get the book thrown at me."

"I knew that when I first spoke to the FBI agent when I first got arrested," he said later.

Assured by the defendant that he understood he was admitting to hundreds of horrendous acts and acknowledging that he understood his life will end behind bars, Russo formally accepted Castro's guilty plea and set sentencing for next Thursday.

The recommended sentence as part of the plea agreement is life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years, a formula designed to make sure Castro is never freed.

After the news broke in May that the three women had managed to escape from Castro's house in a poor section of Cleveland, the city and the nation were shocked by the degree and duration of the captivity. Many sought to understand how the imprisonment could have gone on and why it began.

"My addiction to pornography and my sexual problem has really taken a toll on my mind," Castro said in court Friday.

He also said he had been sexually abused as a child, but the judge cut him off.

The women — Amanda Berry, 27; Gina DeJesus, 23; and Michelle Knight, 32 — were held in seclusion, sometimes chained within the home. The women disappeared between 2002 and 2004, when each was in her teens or early 20s.

Castro fathered a daughter by Berry, who told police that none of them ever saw a doctor. When the child was born on Christmas Day in 2006, Castro raped one of the other women who had helped deliver the baby, officials said.

Knight said each of her five pregnancies ended after Castro starved and repeatedly punched her, the grounds for the charges that could have brought the death penalty.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers have been working for weeks on a plea deal announced more than a month after the three women broke their silence in a written statement. They said they were "hopeful for a just and prompt resolution" and had "great faith in the prosecutor's office and the court." On July 8, the trio released a YouTube video, thanking people.

For the defense, the agreement means that Castro will not be executed. The prosecution gets the assurance that Castro will never leave prison and the victims will not have to go through the ordeal of court appearances and reliving their horror in public. Taxpayers will save the cost of a long and expensive legal process that comes in capital cases.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Blaise Thomas said he's making sure Castro will never see the girl he fathered. The prosecutor's office will ask a judge at Castro's sentencing next week to impose a standard no-contact order on Castro.

Castro had been scheduled for trial Aug. 5 on a 977-count indictment, but 40 counts were dropped as part of the deal.

Wearing handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit, the bearded Castro looked forward and repeatedly said he knew what was happening in court and that he agreed with the final disposition of the case.

"Are you fully aware of the terms and consent to the agreement?" Russo asked.

"I am aware of that," Castro replied.

Russo asked whether Castro understood that he was pleading guilty and admitting to all that had been charged.

"Yes, your honor," Castro replied.

Chief Prosecutor Tim McGinty said the county will use more than $20,000 seized from Castro to tear down Castro's house within a month.

McGinty says the plan is to also tear down two abandoned houses next door and then a build a park.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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