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Did Cleveland Kidnapper Castro Plead Guilty to Avoid Death Penality?

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by Publius
Posted July 29, 2013, 4:02 PM

At the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, Douglas Berman, Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, comments:

The "settlement" value of the death penalty has shown itself again here in Ohio with the breaking news that "Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro accepted a plea deal today that sends him to prison for life plus 'not less than 1,000 years' with no chance of parole for abducting three women and keeping them as sex slaves for over a decade."  Here is more from this ABC News account of today's court proceeding:

"I'm fully aware and I do consent to it," Castro said at a hearing today in a Cuyahoga County court. The deal will spare him from the possibility of facing the death penalty. "I knew I was pretty much going to get the book thrown at me," Castro, 52, told the court.

The agreement as explained by prosecutors would sentence Castro to no "less than 1,000 years" in prison after completing a first sentence of life with no chance of parole. "You understand by accepting this plea, you're accepting life without parole," Judge Michael Russo asked Castro. "You'll never leave prison alive."

"Yes, I do," replied Castro.

The former school bus driver was accused of the aggravated murder of a fetus after forcibly causing an abortion in one of his victims that he is accused of impregnating. That charge would have carried the death penalty had he been convicted. He had previously pleaded not guilty to nearly 1,000 counts of kidnapping, rape and other crimes....

The victims, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus were discovered in Castro's home in May. They were abducted between 2002 and 2004, when they were in their teens or early 20s. "Amanda, Gina, and Michelle are relieved by today's plea. They are satisfied by this resolution to the case, and are looking forward to having these legal proceedings draw to a final close in the near future. They continue to desire their privacy," attorney Kathryn T. Joseph said in a statement.

Prosecutors said if evidence of additional crimes came to light, Castro could still be indicted on future charges that included the death penalty. Castro said he was "willing to work with FBI and I would tell them everything" about his crimes. Wearing glasses for the first first time in court, Castro appeared more alert than at previous hearings.

He said he read and signed the plea deal and understood it although "my addiction to pornography and my sexual problem has taken a toll on my mind" that sometimes caused problems with comprehension. "I was victim as a child and it just kept going," Castro blurted out as an explanation for his crimes. But the judge cut him off, advising him to save his story for his sentencing hearing.

The judge still must accept the terms of the deal agreed to by lawyers and Castro, following a sentencing hearing where the victims may speak. The victims, through their spokesperson, had previously said they did not want to testify at a trial.

Though I suspect some die-hard death penalty abolitionists might take issue with my claim, I sincerely believe that the effective and efficient (and victim-helpful) final outcome in this case was made possible, at least in part, by Ohio having the death penalty on the books. I have a hard time seeing how it would be ethical for a defense lawyer to urge Castro to take a deal like this unless it involved eliminating the chance of a death sentence.  Of course, in a jurisdiction without the death penalty, there never is a chance of a death sentence.

A reasonable argument can be made that the costs and harms of trying to administer the death penalty ultimately outweigh the plea benefits that capital punishment can produce in cases like this. But I think a fair and honest debate about the virtues and vices of the death penalty must recognize cases like this one in which the death penalty would seem to here have done more good than harm for both the victims and society at large.

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