Lawyers representing Francesco Schettino, captain of the capsized Costa Concordia, are planning a last-minute plea bargain to head off a 20-year prison sentence.
As Schettino’s trial opened yesterday in the Tuscan town of Grosseto – delayed by a week due to a lawyers’ strike – his legal team said it plans to propose a plea bargain sentence of three and a half years after a previous request was turned down by prosecutors.
Schettino faces charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship after he smashed the 950ft-long Costa Concordia into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio 18 months ago while attempting a “sail past”, leading to the capsizing of the ship in shallow water and the deaths of 32 passengers.
Schettino has claimed fellow crew members share the blame for the collision, but four other crew and a crisis centre manager for the ship’s owner, Costa Crociere, are set to be allowed plea bargain sentences of about three years. Costa Crociere has also plea bargained, avoiding the trial by paying a €1 million (about £860,000) fine.
Francesco Pepe, one of Schettino’s legal team, said he was opposed to the captain standing trial alone. “Schettino does not want responsibilities that are not his alone attributed to him in the trial,” he said.
But another lawyer representing passengers who fled the vessel during the ship’s chaotic evacuation said the plea bargain request would be turned down.
Schettino was condemned as a coward when recordings revealed the Italian coast guard urging him to get back on board the Costa Concordia after he left the vessel as passengers struggled to get on lifeboats. He has claimed he fell into a lifeboat while guiding the evacuation, and has blamed the collision on poor navigational charts.
But prosecutor Francesco Verusio said yesterday he believed proof of Schettino’s guilt was so strong the trial would be over by the first half of next year. “There are no doubts about his responsibility,” he said. “The only thing is to see what kind of sentence he gets.”
Lawyers representing passengers said they were also fuming over the decision to put Schettino in the dock alone. “Plea bargaining is a comfortable way out,” said lawyer Fabio Targa, who represents a family from Parma who were on board. “I am shocked by the decision by the prosecutor – making Schettino the scapegoat is unjust.”
That view was shared by Domnica Cemortan, a Moldovan dancer invited on to the bridge of the Costa Concordia the night of the collision, who was in court. “I am very disappointed just one person is guilty,” Ms Cemortan told reporters outside the theatre in Grosseto that has been converted into a court room for the trial.
“This was not a car accident but a ship accident,” she said.
Ms Cemortan, a former cruise ship dancer, dined with Schettino the night of the disaster before he invited her to the bridge, leading to claims she distracted him as the island of Giglio reared into view.