NEW: A lawyer says he believes the defense is willing to accept a life sentence
Ariel Castro is accused of holding three woman against their will for close to a decade
Castro, 52, was indicted last week on 329 counts, including kidnapping and rape
The defense signals an effort to forge a "resolution" and avoid trial
An Ohio man accused of murder, rape and holding three women in a Cleveland house against their will pleaded not guilty Wednesday. His attorney said it was an effort to stave off a death penalty and an arduous trial.
Ariel Castro, 52, wore an orange jumpsuit, kept his head bowed and didn’t speak as attorneys entered the plea on their client’s behalf at his brief arraignment in a Cleveland courtroom. He was indicted last week on 329 counts.
Defense attorney Craig Weintraub, speaking to reporters after the arraignment, said some charges in the indictment “cannot be disputed.” But the plea – targeting the murder accusations and the specter of a death penalty – signals an effort to forge a “resolution” and avoid a trial, he said.
Two counts accuse Castro of aggravated murder for purposely causing the unlawful termination of pregnancies. Police say one of the young women he is accused of holding was impregnated five times by Castro, and another bore a child fathered by him.
Weintraub told reporters that the plea “requires the prosecutor to continue to evaluate their case and determine whether medical and forensic evidence can actually support an aggravated murder conviction for the death of a fetus and whether the death penalty is warranted.”
The prosecutor released a statement saying a capital review committee will consider whether the case is appropriate for seeking the death penalty once the indictment process is complete.
Weintraub, Castro’s attorney, acknowledged that “in all likelihood, the prosecutor’s decision will be predicated upon the opinions of medical and forensic experts, and more importantly, whether the women in this case want this case to go to trial for those limited issues.”
“We are very sensitive to the emotional strain and impact that a trial would have on the women, their families and this community,” the lawyer said. “Mr. Castro currently faces hundreds of years in prison with the current charges, and 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.”
Ian Friedman, a Cleveland criminal defense attorney, told CNN’s Piers Morgan later Wednesday that Castro’s defense team appeared to be laying out a scenario that ends with their client spending the rest of his life behind bars.
“Don’t bring the death penalty, there will be a plea, let’s do life,” Friedman said, offering his take on their strategy.
The charges cover only half of the 10 years the three women allegedly were held captive – from August 2002, when the first of the three disappeared off a Cleveland street, to February 2007.
In addition to the two murder counts, the indictment charges Castro with 139 counts of rape, 177 counts of kidnapping, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, three counts of felonious assault and one count of possession of criminal tools, prosecutors said.
Castro’s case has attracted national attention because of the unusual length and depravity of the alleged crimes. “The horrific brutality and torture that the victims endured for a decade is beyond comprehension,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty has said.
The women were freed last month after one of the three shouted for help while Castro was away from his 1,400-square-foot home.
The women have been identified as Michelle Knight, abducted at age 21 in August 2002; Amanda Berry, who was kidnapped at age 16 in April 2003 and has a 6-year-old daughter allegedly fathered by Castro; and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, who was 14 when she disappeared in 2004.
Lawyers for the women expressed confidence and satisfaction after the indictment came down last week. Jim Wooley, attorney for Berry and DeJesus, and speaking on behalf of Knight, said Wednesday that “days like today are not easy.”
“We understand the legal process needs to run its course,” he said. “We are hopeful for a just and prompt resolution. We have great faith in the prosecutor’s office and the court.”
DeJesus knew Ariel Castro, her family told CNN affiliate WOIO.
She was a good friend of Castro’s daughter, Arlene.
One year after DeJesus’ disappearance, Arlene Castro publicly crusaded to find her friend’s kidnapper. In spring 2005 she went on the national television program “America’s Most Wanted” to plead for help in finding her friend.
Ariel Castro attended at least two public vigils for the missing girls while they were allegedly inside his home, relatives told WOIO.
Castro, a former school bus driver, remains in a Cleveland jail on $8 million bond.
He made a brief court appearance soon after his arrest.
Handcuffed and wearing a blue jumpsuit, he looked down throughout that hearing and did not speak.
CNN’s Jason Hanna and Greg Botelho contributed to this report