GROSSETO, Italy — Judges deciding the fate of cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino, blamed for one of the most high-profile maritime disasters in modern history, took center stage on Tuesday.
Sitting on the stage of a small theater being used specifically for the trial, the three judges will decide whether Schettino will spend as much as 26 years in prison after abandoning the Costa Concordia — with passengers still onboard — after it smashed into a reef off the coast of Italy. The Jan. 13, 2012, shipwreck left 32 people dead.
Despite the anticipated large crowds, the theater remained largely empty except for a small contingent of international press.
Schettino, who is charged with abandonment, manslaughter and causing the shipwreck, maintains that he was thrown into a lifeboat when the vessel suddenly rolled onto its side. His lawyers are asking for manslaughter and abandonment charges to be dropped, and argue for shipwreck with "diminished responsibility," arguing that he wasn't entirely responsible at the time of the crash. Normally abandonment carries a mandatory sentence of nine years; diminished responsibility could mean just five.
Salvagers worked for two years to float the ship upright and haul it away from the shoreline of Tuscan island of Giglio. The trial has taken more than half as long again. Still, with a judgement on the horizon, survivors and victims' families are wondering if justice will actually be done if Schettino, the only defendant, is forced to the take all the blame.
"We're all in the same boat, so to say," said Schettino's lawyer Donato Laino as he argued that the role of other crew should be kept in mind when deciding the captain's fate. Five other Costa employees entered plea bargains in exchange for small sentences and no prison time.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.