Costa Concordia captain convicted in deadly shipwreck

Posted at 2:31 PM, Feb 11, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-11 14:31:32-05

GROSSETO, Italy (CNN) — [Breaking news update, posted at 2:09 p.m. ET]

Ship’s Captain Francesco Schettino has been found guilty of manslaughter and other charges related to the January 2012 shipwreck of the Costa Concordia, an Italian judge announced Wednesday night.

[Previous story, posted at 9:30 a.m. ET]

The way prosecutors tell it, Francesco Schettino is an “idiot” who is not only to blame for the crash of the Costa Concordia, but who abandoned ship like a coward, ahead of most of his passengers.

The way his attorneys tell it, Schettino is a “scapegoat” who isn’t responsible for the accident, having fallen into the lifeboat that carried him to shore only after losing his balance when the ship tilted.

It’s now up to a three-judge panel to decide who they believe.

The judges began their deliberations early Wednesday afternoon, following another emotionally charged day in a trial that’s spanned 19 months.

Schettino — the captain of the cruise ship when it crashed off the Tuscan island of Giglio in January 2012, leading to 32 deaths — is charged with causing a maritime disaster, abandoning ship and multiple counts of manslaughter. He faces 26 years in prison if he’s found guilty on all counts.

The panel is expected to announce at 7 p.m. (1 p.m. ET) whether a decision has been reached or if deliberations will continue Thursday.

Captain: I went through ‘media meat grinder’

Over the past two years, the judges have heard from a wide variety of people, including passengers, crew members and technical experts.

Those testifying also included the captain’s female guest on the cruise, Domnica Cermortan, a Moldovan dancer who testified that she was in a romantic relationship with Schettino and that she was with him on the bridge when the accident occurred.

Schettino has admitted to the court that his reason for sailing close to Giglio — leading the ship to hit rocks — was to “impress the passengers.”

Just before the judges got the case, the captain took the opportunity to speak again.

Breaking down in tears, Schettino recalled that January day three years ago.

“I died along with the 32 others,” he said.

And since then, Schettino insisted, he’s become a victim, processed by a “media meat grinder.”

Laywer cites champagne bottle

Schettino’s lead lawyer Domenico Pepe began closing arguments Monday, saying the champagne bottle used to christen the ship when it was put into service in 2006 did not break.

“Everything about this ship and this process since then has been a mystery so far,” he said.

Pepe then addressed each of the charges against the captain, starting with the count of causing a shipwreck and maritime disaster.

He said helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin allegedly did not understand English — a language he was required to speak — when Schettino gave the orders to turn the ship away from the island. Therefore, the attorney argued, Rusli Bin caused the accident — not Schettino.

Rusli Bin was subpoenaed to testify, but his last known address was in Indonesia, and he could not be forced to come to the court in Italy.

Pepe then went on to criticize the prosecutor, who referred to Schettino as an “idiot” in his closing arguments last week.

The lawyer offered one last defense of his client Wednesday, even as he said it would be “easier to fly than defend Schettino,” given all the barbs directed his way by the cruise ship company and media who “needed a scapegoat.”

“In these three years,” Pepe said, “Schettino has suffered the same as a 30-year sentence.”

Blaming the infrastructure

Schettino’s defense has hinged in part on alleged malfunctions of the ship’s equipment and infrastructure, including claims that the ship had faulty watertight doors and generators, and that the elevators did not work when the ship was listing.

“Everything that did not work on the ship is part of the cause of the accident,” Pepe told the court. “Lights didn’t work. People fell into holes. Elevators got stuck.”

These claims were hard to verify because much of the ship was immersed off the coast of Giglio for many months after the accident.

The abandoning ship charge

Pepe tried to explain why his client left the ship ahead of so many passengers.

He used a graphic to illustrate the inclination of the ship at the time Schettino apparently lost his balance and fell into the lifeboat that took him to shore. He said that once on shore, Schettino was able to conduct the rescue operation and that he never lost control of the operation.

The attorney also addressed the famous exchange between Gregorio De Falco — commander of the Livorno Port Authority the night of the accident — and Schettino, during which De Falco told Schettino to “get back on board for f**k’s sake.” Pepe called De Falco’s tone degrading and said the commander was unprofessional and egotistic at a moment when he should have been a voice of calm.

Pepe suggested it was De Falco’s stern manner, rather than Schettino’s alleged ineptitude, that damaged Italy’s reputation.

The manslaughter charges

Addressing the manslaughter charges, Pepe tried to bolster his argument that because no one died on impact when the ship slammed into the rocks, Schettino cannot be held liable.

Everyone who perished lost their lives as a result of the chaotic evacuation, he said.

Pepe defended Schettino’s decision to delay the call to abandon ship by nearly an hour.

“Stop for a minute to consider what would have happened if he had abandoned ship 1 kilometer from shore,” Pepe said. “There could be 4,500 dead, not 32.” (There were 4,229 passengers and crew on the ship.)

He also suggested that finding Schettino not guilty would actually be good for Italy’s image, somehow restoring it in the eyes of the world, which has seen this case as an example of Italian ineptitude.

If the judges agree, that doesn’t mean Schettino’s legal woes are over. He also faces a civil lawsuit from 16 parties for his role in the Costa Concordia disaster.