By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Three young women who spent a decade imprisoned in a Cleveland home spoke publicly for the first time since they were freed, with the longest-held captive saying in a video released on Tuesday: "I will not let the situation define who I am."
The Ohio women - Amanda Berry, 27; Gina DeJesus, 23; and Michelle Knight, 32 - thanked those who gave them emotional and financial support since they emerged from the dungeon-like home of former school bus driver Ariel Castro on May 6. Also rescued was Berry's 6-year-old daughter, born in captivity during the decade of brutality and sexual assault.
Knight, the first woman taken captive, said on the videotape that she was "looking forward to my brand-new life" and thanked supporters for helping her begin her recovery.
"I may have been through hell and back, but I'm strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face, and with my head held high, and my feet firmly on the ground," said Knight, whom Castro is accused of beating to induce miscarriages.
Her chestnut hair trimmed in a stylish pixie cut, Knight wore purple glasses and a silver cross necklace.
Castro has been charged with murder for the miscarriages. He also is charged with kidnapping the three victims between 2002 and 2004 and keeping them bound for periods of time in chains or rope and subjecting them to starvation, beatings and sexual assaults over the next 10 years.
The 3-1/2-minute video (http://ow.ly/mL5vb) provided the first sustained glimpse of all three women since Berry escaped the home and, with the help of neighbors, alerted authorities, who freed the remaining captives.
The women filmed the video last week in the offices of the law firm managing a trust fund established for them.
"People are recognizing them now as they go about in public," said Knight's lawyer, Kathy Joseph, "so they decided to put voices and faces to their heartfelt messages."
Organizers said the Cleveland Courage Fund had grown to more than $1 million as of July 2, with more than 9,200 individuals making contributions.
All three women looked considerably more mature than they did in photos given to police and circulated on missing person flyers when they vanished more than a decade ago.
Berry, her blonde hair cut into a bob, spoke first. Reading from a short statement, she thanked family and friends and concluded by asking that "everyone respect our privacy and give us time to have a normal life."
DeJesus, her dark hair also in a pixie cut, appeared next. "I would say thank you for your support," she said, and her father and mother also spoke briefly.
The video was capped by a lengthier statement from Knight, who said she wanted "everyone to know that I'm doing just fine."
Castro, who turns 53 on Wednesday, is scheduled to return to a downtown Cleveland courtroom on July 24. A judge ruled last week that he was competent to stand trial on 329 criminal counts, including charges of kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Von Ahn)