Captain of cruise liner disaster seeks new plea deal

GROSSETO, Italy Wed Jul 17, 2013 12:00pm EDT

1 of 3. The capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia lies surrounded by cranes outside Giglio harbour July 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito

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GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - Lawyers for Francesco Schettino, captain of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner, will again request a plea deal in a trial over the disaster in which 32 people died, his defense said on Wednesday.

Schettino faces charges including manslaughter and causing the loss of his ship in the accident in January 2012 when the huge liner struck a rock off the picturesque island of Giglio and keeled onto its side, setting off a chaotic night evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers and crew.

Defense lawyer Donato Laino told reporters Schettino would offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of three years and five months, which would allow the complex trial to be resolved more quickly. A previous offer to serve three years and four months was rejected in May.

Five other officials - four ship's officers and the crisis coordinator of the vessel's owners, Costa Cruises - were allowed to present plea bargains for more lenient sentences, with a ruling expected on July 20.

Schettino's lawyers at the trial, which resumed on Wednesday in the town of Grosseto on Italy's west coast after a delay due to a lawyers' strike earlier this month, said he was not the only one to blame for the disaster.

"He has never shied away from his responsibilities. But it is only fair that he is treated justly," another defense lawyer, Francesco Pepe, told reporters outside the courthouse.

"He was the captain, it is right that for certain things he should be the point of reference. But it is not right to blame him for responsibilities that he did not have," he added.

Schettino, 52, is accused of abandoning ship before all crew and passengers had been rescued.

His lawyers argue that he prevented an even worse disaster by steering the 290 meter (950 foot) vessel into shallow waters after the impact and that he was thrown overboard due to the angle of the leaning ship.

"We expect that right from the first we will finally get to the bottom of things and finally understand what really happened that night," Pepe said.

The trial began on July 9 but was immediately suspended because lawyers involved were taking part in a nationwide strike against measures to streamline civil trials.

PLEA BARGAIN

Wednesday's hearing is expected to focus on requests by various people and institutions including Costa Crociere Spa and the Italian Environment Ministry, who wish to be represented as plaintiffs, before the main arguments begin later in the week.

They include Domnica Cemortan, a young Moldovan woman who was at the time a friend of Schettino and was on the liner's bridge when the collision occurred. Prosecutors plan to call her as a witness.

"I hope the truth will come out and the guilty are found responsible for this accident," Cemortan told reporters outside the court. "I'm a passenger like the others."

Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp, agreed to pay a 1 million euro ($1.29 million) fine to settle potential criminal charges in April. That means that for now Schettino is the only person facing trial.

But Daniele Bocciolini, a lawyer representing victims, said last week he hoped investigations would show that the trial should be widened to include all those responsible.

As the court proceedings got under way, salvagers said they hoped to pull the vessel upright in September despite risks that it could break up.

Senior salvage master Nicholas Sloane said he expected some of the "minor structural elements" of the ship could collapse.

"There will be a lot of deformation," he said. "It's almost like a body with a spinal injury, you need to support the neck as she rolls over."

(Writing by Naomi O'Leary and James Mackenzie; Editing by Barry Moody and Alistair Lyon)

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