The lawyers who negotiated the deal that kept Ariel Castro from execution in a notorious Cuyahoga County case are stunned that Castro's family never pushed to find out what was wrong with their relative. They also said they don't understand why neighbors never wondered why Castro kept the windows of his Seymour Avenue home on Cleveland's near West Side boarded up for years.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with the Cleveland Jewish News, lead Castro lawyer Craig Weintraub and co-counsel Jaye Schlachet said that even though such broad questions remain, they're pleased with the deal they arranged for Castro, the 53-year-old former school bus driver who kept Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight captive in his house for about a decade.
The women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were, respectively, aged 16, 14 and 21. They emerged May 6 after Berry escaped through a bolted storm door after its bottom was pried open. She recently danced at a concert in a Cleveland park and Knight has begun to speak out about the case.
On Aug. 1, Castro was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years after pleading guilty to 937 counts including aggravated murder, kidnapping and rape. On Aug. 7, Castro's house was demolished, and the following day, Castro was moved from a Lorain County prison to one in a suburb south of Columbus.
Weintraub and Schlachet, who are Jewish, stressed that their faith figured in how they represented Castro in a case that ran 90 days from start to finish and continues to bring worldwide attention to Cleveland.
They rejected all other interview requests, they said Aug. 8 in their offices at 55 Public Square in downtown Cleveland. They described Castro as a cooperative defendant who understood the complexities of his case, and both expressed hope that forensic psychiatrists might be able to discover what made their controversial client what he is.
Doing a good deed
Weintraub said attorneys contacted by Castro's family referred the family to them. Neither had a problem representing Castro. On the contrary.
Despite the "sensational allegations" against him, Castro was entitled to counsel, said Schlachet. "We knew that we picked an unpopular cause to champion, and frankly, from a personal standpoint, I think it's important to represent unpopular causes because, first of all, it's what we took an oath to do, and it's completely consistent with my Jewish upbringing. We actually did a mitzvah representing this man."
"Here's how it's a mitzvah," said Weintraub. "We saved him from potentially lethal injection and 20 years on death row, which would have cost the taxpayers and the community millions and millions of dollars, and we spared the women the anguish and 'revictimization' of events."
"The guilty plea and the agreement to waive any appellate issues spared the courageous women from a jury trial and the worldwide exposure of the gruesome and horrifying details of their 10-year torture," Weintraub added in an Aug. 9 email. "We were very sensitive to their privacy interests while zealously defending our client against the consideration of capital punishment. The conviction, the agreement to a sentence of life without parole and the demolition of the house provide a sense of closure for the women, the community and Castro's family."
Neither attorney is a stranger to criminal defense. Schlachet was counsel for Imperial Avenue murderer Anthony Sowell on non-capital charges, like kidnapping and rape, affecting the three Sowell survivors.
Weintraub, who for years worked in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, represented Gennadiy Simkovich, bookkeeper for Uri Gofman, a Beachwood man convicted of mortgage fraud in 2011. Simkovich was found not guilty of 36 charges of mortgage fraud and conspiracy included in a 2009 indictment involving more than 450 Cleveland homes and $44 million in fraudulent loans.
Together and separately, Weintraub and Schlachet specialize in cases of white-collar crime and corporate and professional misconduct.
"I've had cases on Oprah, 20/20," Schlachet said. "We're not young lawyers. I've been practicing for 33 years. You don't get these cases when you're a six-year lawyer."
The legal process
Weintraub and Schlachet's argument for Castro stemmed from a discrepancy between state and federal law regarding the definition of "human."
According to Knight, Castro impregnated her multiple times, and in each case, the baby was aborted when Castro starved Knight and punched her in the stomach. Berry gave birth to a daughter by Castro during her captivity.
"Our primary goal was to always be cognizant of the fact that he (Castro) could be charged with the death penalty specification for fetal homicide," said Weintraub, "and in Ohio, for purposes of the homicide statutes, a human is the equivalent of a fertilized egg, which is inconsistent with the (U.S.) Supreme Court precedent of Roe v. Wade."
Under Ohio law, Schlachet said, terminating a pregnancy is a homicide and a "fertilized egg is a human irrespective of viability." That contradicts federal law, as Weintraub noted the Supreme Court permits first-trimester abortions. At the same time, county prosecutors alleged that Knight was impregnated four times "and those pregnancies were terminated - in the house."
"There was no forensic or medical evidence that could establish she was pregnant when she claimed she was and there was no evidence that in fact the pregnancies were aborted," Weintraub said. "No medical or forensic evidence on either side."
In the glare
Both lawyers said the Castro case was the most media-intensive of their career.
"As soon as it was announced that we represented Mr. Castro, we were besieged by every media outlet in the world," said Weintraub. "At one point when we walked out of the jail from meeting Mr. Castro early on in our relationship, there were television producers for the major networks waiting for us. We spoke to them and took their business cards and said maybe we'll be in touch. But we had a situation where one day Jaye and I were in the office and two reporters from Brazil flew in ("unannounced," Schlachet noted) and were waiting in the lobby for an interview with us and they thought they might be able to interview Mr. Castro while the cases was pending, which was just absurd." (Schlachet noted those reporters may have been from Spain.)
Another time, a BBC reporter from London trailed Weintraub for half a day as he went from courtroom to courtroom. "I spoke to her politely and explained that we would not be available for an interview and neither would our client," he said.
Why all the attention? The duration of the women's captivity and the fact there were three were key, Weintraub suggested. Unlike the cases of Jaycee Dugard, involving an 11-year-old girl held captive for 18 years in northern California, and of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter in the basement for 24 years, this one involved three women held for a long period, Weintraub said - three women who survived.
In the neighborhood
Every day, Castro would say goodbye to his three captives and go to work driving a Cleveland school bus. His double life, Weintraub said, apparently raised no eyebrows in his tight-knit Puerto Rican neighborhood.
"Castro has a relatively decent-sized family," Weintraub said, describing Castro's uncle as a prominent Puerto Rican businessman on Cleveland's West Side. "For the family to not necessarily pick up signals that something is inherently wrong over a 10-year period when they would try to visit the house or visited the house or their requests were rebuffed is stunning.
"For us, it's remarkable that that family wouldn't try to find out what was wrong with their sibling, why they couldn't enter the house for all those years and see if the person is troubled in any way and at least start a dialogue and see if they can help.
"We talked to family and they just never thought to put the pieces of the puzzle together," Weintraub added. "They thought his behavior was odd and strange. There were times he would ask his mother to prepare a significant amount of food she thought she was making for him, and he would take it home for the girls.
"It's so troubling that nobody picked up any signals," he said. "It's probably a reflection of our current societal approach to each other."
"Not to care about anything," Schlachet said.
Castro's neighborhood feels "like living in a tenement," Schlachet said. "How could people have not known?" The windows at 2207 Seymour Ave. were boarded up to keep the girls from screaming and being heard - or jumping out.
"Shades were never opened," Weintraub said. "It was revealed to us that the temperatures in the bedrooms where the girls were kept came close to 100 degrees on some of those summer days."
Dealing with a 'monster'
At his sentencing, Castro said he was not a "monster," noting his affection for Jocelyn, his 6-year-old daughter with Berry. Castro also attributed his "sickness" to sexual abuse a family friend inflicted on him as a child and to an addiction to pornography.
How did Weintraub and Schlachet humanize such a man?
"We have familiarity with forensic diagnoses and clearly felt that he fit the profile of sociopathic disorder as well as narcissism and likelihood of antisocial personality," Weintraub said. "So the public can easily label that as 'monster' and 'evil,' but we also look at it in a forensic sense as a mental health issue, because someone doesn't get to this level of depravity and have the ability to lead a double life unless there are significant mental health issues.
"I think that labeling is a copout, to some degree. I think there needs to be, and we're hopeful there will be, some forensic studies of him, to try to understand if there's a way we can find clues in personalities like his so the predators are pulled off the streets and the public is protected. ... We think it could be extremely valuable to society if we could get a group of forensic psychiatrists to conduct evaluations, interview him, interview the family members, make a determination as to whether it's a genetic issue or organic issue, or it's limited simply to mental health.
"There are a lot of people walking the streets who were victims of sexual abuse and addicted to pornography who aren't kidnapping women off the streets, holding them hostage for 10 years and terrorizing them," Weintraub said. "A lot of people don't do that. They get help. For whatever reason, he lacked the insight to get help. Or desire. Which exacerbated his mental health issues."
On the legal front, however, the Castro case is closed. "This case is done," Schlachet said.