By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) – A former Cleveland school-bus driver accused of holding three women captive in his home and torturing them for a decade is scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday.
Ariel Castro, 52, pleaded not guilty last week to more than 300 charges and was scheduled for an initial hearing before Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Russo. He is being held in a county jail on an $8 million bail.
Castro has been charged with rape and kidnapping in connection with the imprisonment of Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, who were rescued last month from Castro’s house on Cleveland’s west side along with Berry’s 6-year-old daughter.
He is also charged with aggravated murder for impregnating Knight between November 2006 and February 2007 and forcing her to miscarry by assaulting her, according to the indictment.
Cleveland police responded to Berry’s 911 call on May 6 and found DeJesus and Knight inside the house. Berry had disappeared the day before her 17th birthday in 2003 after leaving her job at a Burger King restaurant. DeJesus was 14 when she disappeared on her way home from school in 2004.
Authorities said that DNA testing proves Castro fathered Berry’s 6-year-old daughter. County prosecutors have not yet brought kidnapping charges in her case.
The indictment against Castro includes 139 counts of rape and 177 counts of kidnapping, and covers the period from August 2002, when Knight disappeared, to 2007 when Berry’s daughter was born. According to county prosecutors, more charges are expected as the criminal investigation continues.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty has said he would seek aggravated murder charges with a death penalty specification. A committee will consider seeking the death penalty after a complete indictment is issued, prosecutors said.
Ohio is one of 38 U.S. states that have fetal homicide laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Castro’s attorney, Craig Weintraub, has made it clear in a number of statements to the media that he is willing to discuss a plea agreement with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.
(Editing by Nick Carey and Mohammad Zargham)