Cap­tain cleared of mur­der, given 36 years in jail

JoongAng Daily - - Front Page - BY CHOI JONG-KWON, KANG JIN-KYU jkkang2@joongang.co.kr

The Gwangju Dis­trict Court yes­ter­day found Lee Jun-seok, cap­tain of the doomed Se­wol ferry, guilty of gross neg­li­gence of duty for abandoning the ship and sentenced him to 36 years in prison.

But the court ac­quit­ted Lee of a mur­der charge de­manded by the pros­e­cu­tion, say­ing the 68-year-old Lee did not have the in­ten­tion to kill trapped pas­sen­gers when he fled the sink­ing ship on the morn­ing of April 16.

In a rul­ing that comes 209 days after the tragedy in south­west­ern wa­ters left 304 dead, Judge Lim Jeong-yeop said the ev­i­dence pre­sented by the pros­e­cu­tion lacked sub­stance to back the claim that the skip­per did not give an evac­u­a­tion or­der to another mem­ber of the Se­wol crew. Prov­ing Lee did not give an evac­u­a­tion or­der was vi­tal for pros­e­cu­tors to hold Lee ac­count­able for mur­der.

The judge ruled that Lee and the other 14 crew mem­bers were all guilty of breach of trust for abandoning the ship with­out ad­min­is­ter­ing proper safety mea­sures to save the pas­sen­gers.

He noted that ev­ery­one aboard the ferry could have es­caped by 10:06 a.m. had the crew con­ducted proper pro­ce­dures at 9:26 a.m.

The 36-year jail term for the cap­tain came as a big dis­ap­point­ment for the pros­e­cu­tors, who sought the death penalty on the charge that Lee com­mit­ted mur­der for abandoning the ship with­out giv­ing an evac­u­a­tion or­der be­cause that might have pre­vented his own es­cape.

On the 36-year jail sen­tence, which many rel­a­tives of the Se­wol vic­tims found too le­nient, Judge Lim said in a de­lib­er­a­tion that he took into ac­count that Lee was on a tem­po­rary con­tract as the cap­tain and didn’t have the abil­ity to fix ir­reg­u­lar shipping prac­tices of the ferry op­er­a­tor, re­fer­ring to the over­load­ing of cargo con­sid­ered a cause of the sink­ing.

While Lee was spared a mur­der charge, the court found Se­wol’s chief en­gi­neer Park Ki-ho guilty of mur­der and gave him 30 years be­hind bars.

Park’s mur­der con­vic­tion, how­ever, was for the deaths of two badly in­jured sailors whom Park left on the fail­ing ship when he es­caped, with the un­der­stand­ing that do­ing so could cause them to die.

The 13 other sailors re­ceived prison terms rang­ing from five to 20 years for gross neg­li­gence of duty for leav­ing be­hind hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers, mostly high school stu­dents, in the sink­ing ship.

Dur­ing their trial, the de­fen­dants claimed the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the loss of pas­sen­gers’ lives should fall on the Coast Guard for its bun­gled res­cue ef­forts.

The rul­ing on the 15 Se­wol crew mem­bers, par­tic­u­larly for Cap­tain Lee, was not well ac­cepted by the fam­i­lies of teenage vic­tims from Dan­won High School in An­san, Gyeonggi, who were on a field trip to Jeju Is­land.

Many par­ents ques­tioned how the court let Lee off the mur­der charge.

“How does it make sense that a coun­try lets a man live after killing 300 peo­ple?” said one par­ent out­side of the court after the rul­ing.

Shortly after the sen­tence, about 30 fam­ily mem­bers held a press brief­ing, say­ing the court shat­tered their ex­pec­ta­tions that it would give Cap­tain Lee cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

“We will seek to give the de­fen­dants the right level of pun­ish­ment in an ap­pel­late court,” they said dur­ing the press con­fer­ence.

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