CLEVELAND, Ohio — The woman’s voice wavered, just for a moment.
Standing feet from the Ohio man who abducted her and chained her up in his Cleveland house, where for more than a decade she and two other women endured repeated beatings and rapes, she wiped away the tears and started again.
“My name is Michelle Knight, and I would like to tell you what 11 years was like for me,” she told the judge Thursday, delivering an emotionally charged statement that was remarkable for both its hope and defiance.
For days, there had been speculation about whether Knight and the women held with her — Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry — would attend the sentencing hearing of Ariel Castro, who pleaded guilty last week to 937 counts in a deal that eliminated a possible death penalty in exchange for life in prison plus 1,000 years.
The speculation ended when the diminutive 32-year-old Knight, wearing a gray dress and purple-framed eyeglasses, stood in the courtroom after she was called by the judge.
It was the first time Knight had been in the same room with Castro since she was freed from 11 years of captivity on May 9 after neighbors heard Berry’s cries and broke down a door.
Knight stopped on her way to the front of the courtroom, hugging Berry’s sister and DeJesus’ cousin who minutes earlier had read statements on behalf of the two women.
“…I worried about what would happen to me and the other girls every day,” Knight told Judge Michael Russo as she sobbed, wiping away tears.
“Days never got shorter. Days turned into nights. Nights turned into days. Years turned into eternity.”
In many ways, Knight is the least known to the public.
She went missing on August 22, 2002, after being lured into Castro’s vehicle with a promise of a ride.
Castro has told the court he spotted her at a Family Dollar store and overheard her talking about needing a ride.
Unlike the abductions of DeJesus in August 2004 and Berry in 2003, there was little made of her disappearance in the news.
Knight’s grandmother, Deborah Knight, told The Plain Dealer in May, that the family had concluded that Michelle had left of her own accord because she was angry that she had lost custody of her 2-year-old son. That conclusion was supported by police and social workers, she told the newspaper.
But the missing woman’s mother, Barbara Knight, told the newspaper that her daughter would never have broken all contact voluntarily.
Even after Knight’s mother moved to Naples, Florida, she often returned to Cleveland’s West Side to search for her daughter, putting up posters seeking information about her, she told the newspaper.
On Thursday, the world learned from Knight there was never a day that passed while she was in captivity that she didn’t think of her son.
“I wondered if I was ever going to see him again,” she said.
Knight, DeJesus, Berry and Berry’s 6-year-old daughter were held in Castro’s 1,400-square-foot home with boarded-up windows and peeling paint on Seymour Avenue. DNA tests have confirmed that Castro is the father of the 6-year-old.
In court Thursday, Knight did not detail her abuse.
But in a pre-sentencing evaluation, Frank Ochberg — considered a pioneer in trauma science — told the court that Knight suffered “the longest and most severely” at the hands of Castro.
The evaluation — using statements, medical records, videotaped interviews and transcripts — painted a horrifying picture of physical and emotional abuse that included brutal beatings and repeated rapes that resulted in pregnancies that he would end by punching the women in the stomach.
In one case, he threw Knight down the stairs to cause a spontaneous abortion.
Under threat of death by Castro, Knight was forced to deliver Berry’s child, Ochberg said.
“She served as doctor, nurse, pediatrician, midwife. She did the delivery. She did it under primitive conditions. When that little baby wasn’t breathing, she breathed into the baby. She breathed life into that child,” Ochberg testified during the hearing.
“She interposed herself so that Gina wouldn’t get the assault, and she took it. She’s a very courageous and heroic individual.”
Knight told the judge that DeJesus saved her life.
“Gina was my teammate. She never let me fall, I never let her fall. She nursed me back to health when I was dying from his abuse,” she said. “My friendship with her was the only thing that was good out of this situation. We said we will someday make it out alive, and we did.”
With each sentence, her voice hardened.
“Ariel Castro, I remember all the times that you came home talking about what everybody else did wrong and act like you wasn’t doing the same thing. You said, ‘At least I didn’t kill you,’” she said.
“You took 11 years of my life away, and now I’ve got it back. I spent 11 years in hell, and now your hell is just beginning.”
She never looked at Castro, who sat handcuffed at the defense table flanked by two attorneys.
“I will overcome all this that happened. But you’ll face hell for eternity,” she said. “From this moment on, I will not let you define me or effect who I am. I will live on, you will die a little every day as you think about the 11 years and atrocities you inflicted on us.”
She told him the “death penalty would be so much easier.”
“You don’t deserve that, you deserve to spend life in prison. I can forgive you but I will never forget,” she said.
As she neared the end of her statement, Knight was no longer crying. Her voice was no longer wavering and breaking. It was strong and clear.
“I know there (are) a lot of people going through hard times. But we need to reach out a hand and hold them, and let them know they’re being heard,” she said.
“After 11 years, I’m finally being heard. And it’s liberating. Thank you, all. I love you. God bless you.”
Chelsea J. Carter | CNN