Cleveland kidnapping suspect pleads not guilty to 977 counts
By Jason Hanna
(CNN) — A Cleveland man accused of murder, rape and holding three women captive for about a decade in his home pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the 977 counts against him.
Ariel Castro’s plea is his second in a month, necessitated by a fresh indictment issued by a grand jury last week. The 977-count indictment added 648 counts to the 329 to which he pleaded not guilty in June.
Castro, wearing an orange jumpsuit and flanked by two defense attorneys, kept his eyes closed during most of Wednesday’s proceedings in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
The judge periodically instructed him to open his eyes to make sure he understood the charges and his rights as she summarized them.
“I’m trying,” Castro responded at one point, looking at the judge for a time before closing his eyes again.
Authorities said Castro abducted Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus separately in a two-year period starting in 2002.
The women, as well as Berry’s 6-year-old daughter, who authorities say was fathered by Castro, were freed in May after one of the women shouted for help while Castro was away from his 1,400-square-foot home.
The judge on Wednesday ordered that bail remain at $8 million and that a previous order prohibiting Castro from contacting his alleged victims remain in place.
Castro, a former school bus driver, is awaiting trial at a Cleveland jail.
The new indictment encompasses all the years of the women’s alleged captivity, whereas the previous indictment covered only the first four and a half years, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office said.
Among the charges are two counts of aggravated murder, in which Castro is accused of intentionally causing the termination of a pregnancy.
Castro also faces 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 counts of rape, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, six counts of felonious assault, three counts of child endangerment and one count of possessing criminal tools.
After Castro pleaded not guilty to the first 329 charges last month, one of his attorneys, Craig Weintraub, told reporters that although some of the charges “cannot be disputed,” the plea was an effort to seek a deal that would avoid a trial and take the prospect of the death penalty off the table.
Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty, Maria Russo, a spokeswoman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office, said Wednesday.
She declined to comment on whether a plea deal might be in the works and said that the state will be ready for an August 5 trial date previously set by the judge.
CNN’s Dana Ford contributed to this report.
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