Thursday, August 1, 2013

Victim expected to testify in Cleveland kidnapper's sentencing hearing

Michelle Knight, one of the three women Ariel Castro has admitted to kidnapping and holding captive in his home for almost a decade, is expected to make a statement in person Thursday at Castro's sentencing hearing, a source tells ABC News.

Castro, as part of a bargain to avoid the death penalty, pleaded guilty last Friday to kidnapping, raping and beating Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus. The plea deal stipulates that Castro will be sentenced to a minimum of life in prison without parole, plus 1,000 years.

In Thursday's hearing, Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge Michael Russo asked Castro if he had anything to say. Castro, who was handcuffed and shackled, said he would like to apologize to his victims, but that he would wait until later in the hearing.

It remained unclear whether Berry and DeJesus would present written or video-recorded statements.

The three women, for the most part, have maintained a low profile since their rescue May 6, when Berry escaped from Castro's home with her 6-year-old daughter and called for police.

In July, the women released a YouTube video to thank the community for its support, and Berry surprised a crowd last weekend when she walked onstage during a Cleveland concert and was greeted by cheering fans. She later returned to the stage at the invitation of rapper Nelly.

Knight wrote a note to the Cleveland police that the department posted on its Facebook page Wednesday.

"You don't know how much I appreciate all your time & work collecting cards and gifts from people for me and the other girls," Knight's handwritten note stated. "I am overwhelmed by the amount of thoughts, love + prayers expressed by complete strangers ... Life is tough. But I'm tougher. Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly."

The sentencing hearing opened Thursday with testimony by Cleveland police officer Barb Johnson. Johnson was one of the first officers on the scene May 6.

Johnson said that in the ambulance after they were rescued, the three victims told of repeated beatings by Castro and described how they helped Berry give birth at Castro's house.

Detective Andy Harasimchuk of the Cleveland Police Department Sex Crimes Unit told the court that all three women told him they were repeatedly sexually assaulted during the entire time they were held.

Castro, a former school bus driver, kidnapped the women from the streets of Cleveland's west side, then imprisoned them for a decade, court records state. During their captivity, he raped and beat the women, chained them in his basement, and allowed them outside only a few times, the records show.

DNA analysis also shows that Castro fathered Berry's daughter, and prosecutors say he impregnated Knight and then beat her to force a miscarriage. It was that act that resulted in the aggravated murder charge and a possible death penalty.

After last Friday's plea bargain hearing, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty described Castro as a manipulator without remorse who would not leave prison ?except nailed in a box or in an ash can.? Castro pleaded guilty to 937 charges, including aggravated murder, rape and kidnapping.


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