By Isla Binnie and Gabriele Pileri
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - Francesco Schettino, former captain of the Costa Concordia, could be given up to 26 years in prison on charges of causing the shipwreck in which 32 people died when the huge cruiseship ran aground and sank in January 2012.
A court in Grosseto, Italy, may hand down a verdict as early as Wednesday evening for Schettino, 54, on charges of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship, defense lawyers said.
Investigators severely criticized his handling of the disaster, accusing him of bringing the 290 meter-long vessel too close to shore when it struck rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio, tearing a hole in its side and setting off a chaotic night evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers and crew.
He has also been accused of delaying evacuation and losing control of the operation during which he abandoned ship before all the 4,200 passengers and crew had been rescued.
Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 26 years in prison for Schettino, who has admitted some responsibility as captain of the ship but denies blame for deaths that occurred during the evacuation.
He was left alone in the dock to answer for the disaster after the ship's owners Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp paid a 1 million euro ($1.13 million) fine to settle and prosecutors accepted plea bargains from five other officials.
COSTLY WRECK RECOVERY
The Costa Concordia wreck was one of the highest-profile shipping disasters of recent years, leaving the massive hulk abandoned on its side for two-and-a-half years before it was towed away in the most expensive maritime wreck recovery in history.
Schettino's defense team argued he prevented an even worse disaster by steering the ship close to the island as it sank. They say the sentence sought by prosecutors goes beyond even sentences sought for mafia killers.
"I believe and hope that the court will be able to establish the fact that the deaths happened after the impact," his lawyer Domenico Pepe told reporters.
Schettino, a distinctive figure with his sharp suits and pomaded hair, has been a constant presence throughout the trial in a makeshift courtroom set up in a theater in Grosseto.
Questions have also been asked about the safety procedures and the wider responsibilities of ship operators Carnival.
Giuliano Leuzzi, a lawyer representing consumer organization Codacons, a civil party in the case said: "We need to establish the real responsibilities and each party should take responsibility for their share."
(Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Ralph Boulton)