Captain wants plea deal in Italian shipwreck case
- July 17, 2013 - 10:50 AM
GROSSETO, Italy — Lawyers for the captain on trial for the deadly shipwreck of the luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia are making a last-ditch attempt to reach a plea bargain in a case that could result in a long prison sentence.
Francesco Schettino's trial resumed on Wednesday in Grosseto, Italy, after a week's suspension due to a nationwide lawyers' strike. He's the only defendant in the trial.
One of his lawyers, Donato Laino, told reporters the defense would ask the prosecutors and judge to agree to a deal that would see Schettino plead guilty in exchange for a three-year, five-month sentence. Schettino risks up to 20 years, if found guilty on charges of manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing the shipwreck off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13, 2012 that killed 32 people.
Laino said the defense team was pessimistic. The bid is essentially a "formality since the prosecution will tell us 'no,'" the LaPresse news agency quoted the lawyer as saying. Prosecutors must give their assent to any plea-bargain arrangement.
It was not immediately clear when a ruling might come.
In May, a different judge in pretrial hearings rejected Schettino's first bid for a plea bargain.
But deals were approved for the five other defendants, including the helmsman, and other ship officers who were on the bridge of the ship with Schettino when it rammed a jagged reef while cruising too close to the Tuscan island of Giglio in the darkness of a winter evening. The five included an official of the Italian cruise company Costa Crociere SpA who was managing the crisis on land.
A judge is expected to rule on Saturday on those defendants' requests for lenient sentences, with the stiffest request for a prison term of about two years. In Italy, sentences are often suspended in the cases of first time convictions that result in punishments of a just a few years or less. That means Schettino could be the only Costa Concordia defendant who risks a long sentence.
Schettino calls himself an innocent scapegoat. Prosecutors have alleged he deliberately guided the ship dangerously close to the island's rocky coast in a publicity stunt.
Some of the 4,200 passengers and crew who were aboard the Concordia have said Schettino shouldn't be the only person being tried in the case.
"Frankly, I'm not angry with Schettino," said Gianluca Gabrielli, a 33-year-old Roman who is a surviving passenger. "I'm angry with the whole crew. They were smiling at the beginning, but when they realized that there was danger, they escaped, abandoning us," Gabrielli said outside the Grosseto theater, which is serving as a makeshift courtroom to allow more space for the public.
When the reef gouged a 70-meter-long (230-foot) gash in the side of the hull, seawater rushed in, causing the Concordia to quickly list badly, finally ending up capsized outside Giglio's tiny port.
Passengers described a chaotic evacuation that was ordered so late that many lifeboats on the listing side couldn't be launched. Many survivors, who jumped into the sea and swam to shore, have recalled their shock and amazement that Schettino was already on shore while others were still on the boat.
Most of the last survivors had to be lifted to safety from the capsized wreck by helicopters.
Also dismayed that Schettino was the sole defendant was a Moldovan dancer, Domnica Cemortan, who was on the bridge with the captain when the collision occurred. Cemortan said she was traveling as a passenger. But she has said that she had worked in the past as a hostess for the Italian cruise operator.
Cemortan told reporters she came to court Wednesday to formally ask to join hundreds of other survivors in civil actions attached to the criminal trial that could bring monetary compensation in case of conviction. "In my opinion, there cannot be only one defendant," Cemortan said. "It is strange to see only one person made to be the guilty one" in the courtroom.
Most of the seats in the theater Wednesday were empty, as it was widely expected that the hearing would be taken up by procedural matters.
Those issues include the judge's decision about which of some 150 witnesses will be called to testify and when. Testimony is unlikely to begin before September because courtrooms in Italy generally break for vacation in August.
The trial is expected to last for months, possibly until spring 2014, officials have said.
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