Captain cleared of murder, given 36 years in jail
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.