Survivors ask: Will justice be done for Concordia shipwreck?

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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 4:36 PM
Survivors ask: Will justice be done for Concordia shipwreck?

GROSSETO, Italy (AP) — The defense team for the Italian captain on trial for the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner and the deaths of 32 people on Monday appealed to the court to take into consideration errors by other crew and malfunctioning equipment when it determines his fate.

With a verdict expected this week after 18 months of trial, survivors and victims' families already are wondering if justice will be done if only the captain, Francesco Schettino, the sole defendant, is convicted without any price to pay by the Italian cruise company for errors by other employees and for malfunctioning equipment.

Defense lawyer, Donato Laino, told the court the role of other crew should be kept in mind when deciding Schettino's fate.

"We're all in the same boat, so to say," he said.

Schettino is accused of causing the shipwreck on the night of Jan. 13, 2012, when he steered too close to a tiny Tuscan island, smashing into a granite reef that sliced open the hull, sending seawater rushing in.

He is also charged with multiple manslaughter and injury, and of abandoning the luxury liner when many of the 4,200 passengers and crew were still aboard and desperately trying to save themselves — some by leaping into the sea — as the Concordia was capsizing.

Survivors, shivering as they staggered ashore on Giglio Island, were startled to see the captain, already safe on land, "without even getting his feet wet," as Prosecutor Alessandro Leopizzi put it in his closing arguments.

The cruise company, Costa Crociere SpA, has put the blame squarely on Schettino.

Schettino's lawyers asked the court in the Tuscan town of Grosseto to acquit him of abandoning ship. Schettino has repeatedly denied the accusation, saying he was thrown off as the ship capsized. They also argued he was innocent of manslaughter, insisting no one died in the impact because of problems with other crew and equipment.

They appealed for leniency should he be convicted of causing the shipwreck.

Another defense lawyer, Domenico Pepe, challenged prosecution contentions that Schettino should have immediately dropped anchor and ordered all to abandon ship. Had anchor been lowered, the lawyer claimed, the Concordia would have quickly sunk — instead of eventually coming to rest, on its side, on a rocky seabed outside the port — and thousands would have perished.

"Like a good sailor, he read the wind and went ahead," Pepe said. Schettino was following a mariner's adage that "the ship is the best lifeboat," the lawyer argued.

But Cesare Bulgheroni, a lawyer who represents a Greek couple who survived and the estate of a German woman who didn't, said: "Something is missing in this trial of Schettino.

"It is incomplete because, in our view, other responsibilities, beyond his, emerged," Bulgheroni said.

He and other lawyers for survivors, contend that Costa Crociere's board of directors should be equally responsible as Schettino might be.

They cite these examples that emerged in testimony.

An emergency diesel generator didn't work; elevators didn't shut down for safety reasons during the disaster; some crew didn't speak Italian, the ship's working language, and others barely spoke English. The Indonesian-born helmsman botched a last-minute maneuver ordered by Schettino because he apparently didn't understand the command, as testimony revealed during the 19-month-long trial.

Costa Crociere's lawyer at the trial, Marco De Luca, has scoffed at the demand for punitive damages. He asserted recently in public comments that it's "not in the least bit possible ... that Costa Crociere in some measure could have been able to prevent a disaster of this kind."

In 2013, a judge in Tuscany fined the company 1 million euros (then $1.3 million). Costa had asked for a plea bargain deal to respond to administration sanctions, which, under Italian law, are given for companies whose employees commit crimes.

Five Costa Crociere employees were allowed to enter plea bargains in exchange for lenient sentences. None of them is serving prison time. They include the helmsman and the company's land-based crisis coordinator, who, prosecutors said, downplayed the emergency's severity.

Prosecutors have asked the court to convict Schettino and sentence him to more than 26 years in prison.

"Whether it is 26, 20, 10, to us it doesn't matter," another lawyer for plaintiffs, Massimiliano Gabrielli, argued in court. He added: "For this trial to have really served a purpose ... Costa Crociere must be made to pay."

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Follow Frances D'Emilio on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio