Chief engineer of doomed South Korea ferry overcome by fear and panic: lawyer

Tue Jan 20, 2015 8:12am EST
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By Ju-min Park

GWANGJU, South Korea (Reuters) - The chief engineer of the doomed Sewol ferry who was jailed for 30 years for leaving behind two injured crewmates believed they were dead and had acted in "a state of extreme fear and panic," his lawyer told a South Korean appeals court on Tuesday.

Defense lawyers for the 15 surviving crew members of the ferry that capsized last April, killing 304 people, have appealed their convictions that led to prison terms ranging from five to 36 years.

The ship's chief engineer was convicted of homicide for not aiding two injured crew members. He was the only one of four facing homicide charges to be found guilty on that count, and sentenced in November to 30 years in prison.

"In a state of extreme fear and panic, he thought the crew members already died and tried to help others to escape," Kim Yong-chool, lawyer for the chief engineer, told the court, which began hearing the case on appeal on Tuesday.

Prosecutors are also appealing the ruling, challenging the court's legal interpretation of homicide. They had sought the death penalty for the captain on a homicide charge but he was sentenced to 36 years for negligence.

"At the appeal, there will be back and forth focused on whether there was an intention to kill, and an order to evacuate the ship," a Gwangju High Court judge Suh Kyeong-hwan said, adding that a ruling is expected by April 28.

The surviving crew have been vilified since video footage showed they were among the first to be rescued as teenagers on a school trip waited in their cabins as instructed, drowning when the overloaded vessel sank before help arrived.

Dozens of victims' relatives, some wearing yellow ribbons that have become a symbol of mourning for the victims, packed the courtroom, and some asked a panel of three judges to hand down tough sentences when they were given a chance to speak.

(Editing by Jack Kim and Jeremy Laurence)

Students (in white) who survived the Sewol ferry disaster pay tribute to victims of the sunken passenger ship, after being discharged from a hospital at the official memorial altar in Ansan April 30, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji