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Defense lawyers: Crew barely escaped stricken Sewol ferry

By K.J. Kwon and Madison Park, CNN
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1116 GMT (1916 HKT)
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."

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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.

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