By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A former Cleveland school bus driver accused of kidnapping and holding three women captive for years pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to hundreds of criminal charges, but his lawyers said they are seeking a plea agreement to avert a trial.
A grand jury on Friday added 648 charges to a previous indictment against Ariel Castro, bringing the total number of charges against him to 977.
Castro, 53, is accused of abducting the first of the women in 2002 and holding them captive until they escaped from his house on May 6 along with a 6-year-old girl he fathered with one of the women.
During a brief court appearance, a lawyer for Castro entered the not guilty plea and the judge kept in place an $8 million bond, and an order that Castro have no contact with the three women and the child.
Law enforcement officials have said that the women, Gina DeJesus, 23, Michelle Knight, 32, and Amanda Berry, 27, were kept bound in chains or rope for periods of time and that they endured starvation, beatings and repeated sexual assaults.
The most serious of the charges against Castro, two counts of aggravated murder under a fetal homicide law over allegations he forced Knight to miscarry, could potentially carry a death sentence if prosecutors choose to pursue it.
Joe Frolik, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, told reporters a committee that considers death penalty charges is still deliberating and prosecutors have reserved the right to bring a third indictment that includes a death penalty charge.
According to the indictment, Knight was pregnant at least three times from September 2002 to December 2003. Castro's aggravated murder charge stems from allegations that he forced her to miscarry in a fourth pregnancy from 2006 to 2007.
But legal experts have said that it would be difficult to prove murder without physical evidence of the miscarriage.
Castro has not sought to delay the start of his trial, which is scheduled for August 5, but defense attorneys again said on Wednesday they are seeking a plea agreement in the case.
"We are preparing for that trial however with the goal in mind to try to resolve this for the fairness of the women as well as the community so everyone can put this behind them," Castro's attorney, Craig Weintraub, told reporters.
"Either we are going to have a plea or we are going to have a trial on August 5," he said.
Ian Friedman, a Cleveland lawyer who defended a teenager who opened fire at an Ohio school last year killing three people, said he would be shocked if the Castro trial begins as early as August 5 because of the complexity and number of charges.
"Ariel Castro will never leave prison to the taste of freedom. This case is only about whether he receives life (in prison) or death," Friedman said.
Castro is charged with kidnapping the three women from 2002 to 2004 and brutalizing them over the next 10 years. He is also charged with kidnapping the 6-year-old girl and three counts of endangering her.
In Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on Wednesday, Castro's lawyers waived a reading of the full indictment, which also includes 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 counts of rape, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, six counts of felony assault, and one count of possessing tools such as a Ruger handgun used to aid in the crimes.
Judge Pamela Barker summarized the charges against Castro. When she asked if he understood the charges, Castro replied, "yes." Barker several times told Castro, who was wearing orange prison clothes, to raise his head and to open his eyes.
DNA evidence has confirmed that Castro was the father of the girl, who was born to Berry. At a court appearance in early July, Castro asked to be allowed jail visits from his daughter. A judge rejected the request immediately as "not appropriate."
(Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune, Grant McCool and Tim Dobbyn)
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