01:31 - Source: CNN
Death penalty sought for ferry captain

Story highlights

South Korean prosecutors seek death penalty for ferry captain and life in prison for three others

Conduct of Sewol ferry crew drew outrage in South Korea

South Korea has not carried out death penalty since 1997

Gwangju, South Korea CNN —  

South Korean prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the captain of the capsized Sewol ferry and life in prison for three other crew members involved in the deadly disaster earlier this year.

The death penalty is unusual in South Korea, which has not carried out executions in 17 years. It hasn’t been used in decades, as a backlash to how it was used in the past for political purposes.

Prosecutors charged the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and the three crew members with murder, because prosecutors allege the ferry’s crew members didn’t use the ship’s facilities such as life rafts, life vests and announcements to evacuate passengers.

The captain was filmed being rescued in his underwear on April 16, as the ferry capsized off the South Korean coast. Lee said he was changing clothes and smoking at the time of the incident. He was rescued while hundred remained inside the boat, listening to announcements to stay put. He has apologized to the victims saying his actions were not intentional.

At least 294 people died – including hundreds of high school students on a field trip – when the ferry sank. Ten bodies are still missing.

Prosecutors are also seeking 30 years in prison for a female crew member, who was at the helm of the ship at the time of its sinking.

The closing statement was held Monday, and the three judges are expected to issue a verdict and sentencing on November 11.

The death penalty cannot be carried out in South Korea without a signed order from the country’s president.

“The death penalty is essentially a mere life sentence,” said Jasper Kim, a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha University, who has a background in law.

He also added that South Korea does not usually sentence convicted criminals to life without parole – so life sentences usually represent about 20 years or less of imprisonment.

The Sewol disaster caused widespread outrage in South Korea over lax safety standards and the failure to rescue more people as the ship foundered.

CNN’s Madison Park contributed to this report.