Skip to main content

Defense lawyers: Crew barely escaped stricken Sewol ferry

By K.J. Kwon and Madison Park, CNN
updated 7:16 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Relatives of the passengers on the Sewol ferry wait outside the Gwangju District Prosecutor's office on June 10, 2014.
Relatives of the passengers on the Sewol ferry wait outside the Gwangju District Prosecutor's office on June 10, 2014.
  • Defense lawyer for first mate apologizes
  • 15 crew members facing charges for conduct on ship in which nearly 300 have died
  • First mate's lawyer says client tried to commit suicide
  • Defense: Ferry owners should be punished

Gwangju, South Korea (CNN) -- The lawyer for the first mate of the ill-fated Sewol ferry told an emotionally-charged court his client left the sinking ship because he thought the coast guard would be able to rescue the passengers.

When Sohn Ji-tae realized the growing number of casualties, he was shocked, ridden with guilt and tried to commit suicide, his lawyer said, as the trial of 15 ferry crew members resumed Tuesday.

Sohn's lawyers acknowledge the criminal charges his client is facing and told the court: "I would like to express apologies for those who were sacrificed in the accident."

Ferry CEO charged with negligence
Angry families speak out at ferry trial
Alleged S. Korean ferry owner is missing
Coast guard dismantled after ferry fiasco

His lawyer said his client doesn't want to make excuses about his conduct, and requested more lenient sentencing given his condition and guilt over the deaths.

Defense lawyers for the remaining crew members say that the ferry staff barely managed to escape from the stricken vessel and blamed the owners of the Sewol for adding more passenger cabins to the 20-year-old vessel, which altered its weight and balance. One told the court that relevant people from the ferry company and those who are supposed to be monitoring the ship's modifications should be punished.

READ: What went wrong on Sewol?

The Sewol ferry sank on April 16 en route to Jeju island with many of the passengers on a high school field trip trapped inside. The fact that several crew members, who were responsible for passenger's safety, escaped while students remained in the boat caused outrage in South Korea.

So far, 292 people have died and 12 remain missing.

The passengers' family members filed into the Gwangju District Court Tuesday, many angry and disgusted with the 15 crew members.

"They don't have the (expletive) right to sit down," one woman screamed as the defendants were getting seated. "They should get down on their knees."

The prosecutor's case

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, the first mate and two others face murder charges. The prosecutor's office said the four crew members didn't use the ship's facilities at their disposal -- such as life rafts, life vests and announcements to evacuate passengers.

READ: Angry families scream as trial begins

According to prosecutors, the crew members could have carried out a far more effective rescue operation, listened to requests for help, rather than ignore them, and could have made taking care of the passengers their first priority, rather than taking care of themselves.

Lee has plead not guilty to murder and most of the charges he faces.

One mother asked the crew members in court why they didn't tell the students to evacuate the ship. She said she spoke with her daughter on the phone after the ship started tilting. Her daughter assured her she would be rescued and not to worry. As the mother spoke, other family members sobbed.

Defense lawyers for the crew say the ferry tilted very quickly, sinking within 90 minutes, and that they (the crew) had the constitutional right to evacuate.

The lawyers drew jeers from the families when they said that rescuers would not have been able to rescue all the passengers on board.

With no jury, the judge will determine the verdict, which is expected in November.

READ: Abandon ship? Why captains don't hang around

K.J. Kwon reported from Gwangju, South Korea and Madison Park wrote from Hong Kong.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
South Korean forensics officials say they are sure the body found in a field last month is Yoo Byung Eun.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
The trial of the captain and crew began, with the accused facing the families of the victims.
updated 10:52 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry, has eluded arrest for weeks.
updated 3:09 PM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
South Korea's President apologized for a ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.
updated 11:23 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
Here are 7 major factors that contributed to the ship's sinking.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
The words and images from the cell phone of a girl who perished on the South Korean ferry convey the rising panic aboard.
updated 1:56 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
In one video, the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry scrambles to safety. In another, stranded passengers panic.
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
As the death toll from the ferry disaster continues to rise, yellow ribbons have evolved into a national sign of grief.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
Choi Duk-Ha, 17, is credited for saving the lives of many on the ferry. He later died and is now hailed as a hero.
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Mon April 28, 2014
CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the rising anger as South Koreans learn more about the final moments of the doomed vessel.
updated 11:14 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Ship stability expert Paul Roden about whether the cargo lead to the ferry disaster.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
South Korea is not only a nation in mourning, but also a country overwhelmed with guilt. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets as the stricken ferry began to sink, refusing to wear one herself. It cost her life.
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
South Korean students remember their vice principal, who took his own life after the ferry sinking.
updated 3:30 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry is defending his actions as rescuers continue the search for survivors.
updated 10:01 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
CNN's Kyung Lah reports on suicide in South Korea following news of a capsized ferry.