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Accused Cleveland abductor to appear in court amid reports of plea deal

Ariel Castro, 52, sits with his head down between his attorneys Jaye Schlachet (R) and Craig Weintraub (L) during his pre-trial hearing on c
Ariel Castro, 52, sits with his head down between his attorneys Jaye Schlachet (R) and Craig Weintraub (L) during his pre-trial hearing on c

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Accused Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro is scheduled to appear in court on Friday amid reports that he is close to agreeing to a plea deal under which he would serve a life sentence for kidnapping and raping three women and holding them captive for years.

Several media reported on Thursday that prosecutors had offered Castro a deal to avoid a trial, and spare him the death penalty.

Under the offer, Castro, 53, would spend the rest of his life behind bars plus 1,000 years, without the possibility of parole, NBC news reported late on Thursday, citing sources involved in the investigation.

Several other Cleveland media reported a deal was imminent.

Earlier on Thursday, Castro defense lawyer Jaye Schlachet told Reuters a plea agreement had not yet been reached.

Jay Frolik, a spokesman for prosecutors, on Thursday declined comment on reports of a possible deal.

Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo set a 10 a.m. EDT Friday court hearing and said the parties "had entered into plea negotiations on this case."

Castro has been charged with 977 counts, including kidnapping and rape, for the abduction and imprisonment of Gina DeJesus, 23, Michelle Knight, 32, and Amanda Berry, 27.

The women disappeared beginning in 2002 and were freed from Castro's home in a rundown area of Cleveland on May 6. Also freed was a 6-year-old girl who, according to DNA evidence, was fathered by Castro with Berry during her captivity.

The women had been bound for periods of time in chains or ropes and endured starvation, beatings and sexual assaults, according to court documents and a police report. Avoiding a trial would spare them from having to testify.

He has also been charged with murder under a fetal homicide law for allegedly forcing one of the women to miscarry.

Under Ohio law, prosecutors could seek the death penalty for the murder charge and said they were considering it.

If no plea agreement is reached, Castro's trial is scheduled to begin on August 5. Prosecutors have said they would be ready for trial but Castro's defense team argued they would not have enough time to review a huge amount of evidence.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)

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