By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A former Cleveland school bus driver accused of holding three young women captive for a decade and subjecting them to torture, such as chaining them to a pole, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to more than 300 criminal charges including rape, kidnapping and murder.
Ariel Castro, 52, was indicted last week on 329 charges for the abduction and confinement of the women, who were freed from his house on May 6 along with a 6-year-old girl, which DNA evidence later confirmed was fathered by Castro.
Cleveland residents were elated by the news that the three women, Gina DeJesus, 23, Michelle Knight, 32, and Amanda Berry, 27, had been found alive after years of searches and vigils.
In a Cuyahoga County court appearance to answer the charges on Wednesday, Castro kept his head down while his lawyer entered a plea of not guilty and waived a reading of the 142-page indictment. Castro did not speak.
Castro is 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.
A police report said Castro, who is being held on an $8 million bond, caused Knight to suffer repeated miscarriages by starving her and beating her in the abdomen.
The charges against Castro cover the period from August 2002, when Knight disappeared, into 2007. More charges are possible as the criminal investigation continues, according to Cuyahoga County prosecutors.
The indictment describes treatment that amounted to conditions similar to slavery. During their imprisonment, Castro is accused of chaining victims to a pole in the basement, beating them, confining them to his house in a working class area of Cleveland and repeatedly sexually assaulting them.
The indictment said Castro choked Berry with a cord after she tried to escape, and a police report said he forced Berry to deliver the child fathered by him in a plastic swimming pool with the aid of Knight.
A committee will consider seeking the death penalty after a complete indictment is issued, prosecutors said. Ohio is one of 38 states that have fetal homicide laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
An attorney for Castro said while some of the charges in the indictment could not be disputed, the death penalty was not warranted in this case.
"We are very sensitive of the emotional strain and impact a trial would have on the women, on their families and this community," defense attorney Craig Weintraub said after the hearing on Wednesday.
"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," he said.
Berry was freed along with her 6-year-old daughter by neighbors from Castro's house. Berry disappeared the day before her 17th birthday in 2003 after leaving her job at a Burger King restaurant.
Cleveland police responded to Berry's 911 call and found DeJesus and Knight inside the house. DeJesus was 14 when she disappeared on her way home from school in 2004.
A spokesman for the three women said: "Days like today are not easy. We are hopeful for just and prompt resolution," of Castro's criminal case.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Greg McCune and Sofina Mirza-Reid)