Ariel Castro kidnapped Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, and held them in his basement for over 10 years. During that time, he abused and raped the three women countless times, and fathered a six-year-old child with Berry. Now that he's been caught, Castro is being indicted on 977-counts, including 512 counts of kidnapping and 446 counts of rape. There is little dispute over what actually happened. Police have found torture instruments in Castro's basement, and three witnesses are fully prepared to testify against him. Castro has no hope of disputing that he kidnapped, raped, and physically abused these women. Why, then, is he pleading not guilty?
Initially, there was speculation that Castro would plead not guilty on the grounds of mental insanity. But such a plea is now off the table. On May 8, police found a suicide note written by Castro that outlined his actions and motivations. In the note, Castro admits to knowing that what he did was wrong, and tries to excuse his behavior, talking about a sex addiction, family problems, and a difficult childhood. He also blames the victims for their original kidnappings, saying that it was their fault for getting into his car in the first place.
Insanity pleas only work if the defense can prove that the defendant did not have the capacity to know right from wrong. Castro’s note clearly shows that he cannot meet that requirement. On July 3, Castro was declared mentally competent to stand trial. He will not be going to a mental institution.
In explaining the plea, Castro's lawyers focused on what they describe as media and prosecution demonization of a decent man. But, first and foremost, courts and judges try people for crimes. They should be concerned with what Castro has done, and not something as vague and subjective as Castro's general character. Castro's punishments should not be based on how he treats his neighbors or his grandmother. If Castro indisputably kidnapped and tortured these women, it doesn't matter if he treats his grandmother like a princess.
Castro’s lawyers are likely using his plea as leverage. They have informed the prosecution that Castro may change his plea if the prosecution takes the death penalty off the table. While the death penalty is typically reserved for first degree murders, Castro’s crimes may be cruel enough to warrant it. Precedent is in Castro's favor, however. Brian Mitchell, who abducted Elizabeth Smart, and Phillip Garrido, who abducted Jaycee Dugard, both received life sentences for their crimes. In addition to the death penalty, lawyers may hope to have some of the aggravated assault charges dropped.
Castro has nothing to lose. He is probably not paying for his lawyers, and therefore does not have to worry about the legal fees associated with a trial. A long, drawn-out trial would also delay his permanent incarceration, or, in the case of a death penalty verdict, extend his life. A trial, on the other hand, would strain the prosecution's budget, and expose Berry, DeJesus, and Knight to the trauma of recounting their experiences in court. The defendant knows that he has nothing to lose, and, therefore, everything to gain.