| MOKPO, South Korea
MOKPO, South Korea May 20 South Korea's legal
system appears to be failing 15 surviving crew of a ferry that
sank last month, killing hundreds of children, with their being
tried and convicted by an angry public before the case has even
come to court.
Lawyers are agonising over how they can mount a convincing
defence of the crew, who jumped ship as the children waited in
their cabins, dressed in life jackets, obediently following
orders before a disaster that put the whole country in mourning.
The absence of determined defence may mean that the crew's
side of the story - whether, for instance, they were adequately
trained or whether they were given strict orders to abandon ship
- may never be heard in court.
One lawyer, appearing for the one of the crew in hearings
held behind closed doors to decide the validity of arrest
warrants, confessed to being torn between professional
obligation and the resignation that lawyers could not make any
difference amid a nationwide witch hunt.
"It is a burden for every lawyer, because the crime is
something that can hardly be forgiven," he said in the small
coastal town of Mokpo.
"It's not just that one person died. There were hundreds.
All I could say to the judges is 'we will await your wise
decision'. That was it."
Cheong Yeong-seok, a law professor at Korea Maritime and
Ocean University, said the "harsh public criticism" meant the
chance of a spirited defence was low.
"For lawyers, this case is difficult," he said. "...There is
almost nothing to defend because the crew jumped ship without
doing their duty."
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn,
sank off the southwest coast on a routine journey from Incheon
on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju, killing
children and teachers, among others, on a high school field
Only 172 people were rescued of an estimated 476 passengers
and crew on board.
Appointed by the court, about half the 20 lawyers in Mokpo
had to appear for the crew in the closed-doors hearings, said
lawyers and sources with direct knowledge of the process.
But the lack of enthusiasm was such that the court had to
plead for help, they said.
The lawyers, more used to minor business and electoral
disputes and petty crimes in a town famous for its octopus,
mostly work cheek by jowl in tiny offices in just two buildings.
They have to lower their voices, heavily accented with a
rural southwestern brogue, to avoid the competition overhearing.
Law firm officials said this case was too big and too much
TEARS ROLL DOWN PRESIDENT'S CHEEKS
The ferry's captain and three senior crew were charged with
homicide last week, two were charged with fleeing and abandoning
ship and nine were charged with negligence.
The tragedy turned from an outpouring of grief into public
anger as video footage showed some of the crew, including the
69-year-old captain in his underpants, escape the sinking vessel
while the children were still on board.
President Park Geun-hye, tears rolling down her cheeks,
formally apologised on Monday for the disaster and said she
would break up the coast guard because it had failed in its
Until now, the state-appointed lawyers in Mokpo had been
bound to represent the detained crew, speaking to them briefly
before the court hearings.
But now charges have been laid, the trial will move to the
bigger town of Gwangju. The Mokpo court is too small.
Gwangju District Court said the crew's lawyers had been
replaced by six new state-appointed attorneys based in the town,
and private lawyers for two crewmen.
"The state-appointed lawyers are different from private
lawyers. Realistically, they have little confidential
relationship with their clients," a source close to the legal
"When the court calls and assigns this case to lawyers, it
is pressure and doesn't feel good. But the defendants should
have the right to defence. Even more so because there aren't
many precedents for such a case," another source said.
The lawyer and sources declined to be named due to the legal
proceedings and the controversial nature of the case.
In the 1995 collapse of a Seoul department store that killed
502 people, the head of the company that built the store was
unable to find a private lawyer to represent him, media said. He
had to get court-appointed counsel.
South Korea is still furious about an accident that could so
easily have been avoided, with footage emerging of the children
playing and joking about the Titanic as the ship started to
Two children's bodies were found days later with their life
jackets tied together, presumably so they wouldn't drift apart.
There is a Korean saying that the law of emotion is above
the law of the land and Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor
at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, said the "spirit of the law"
in this case had likely been damaged by public anger.
"Media affects public opinion, then public opinion affects
investigations and legal proceedings," he said.
Angered by his daughter's death, Yoo Kyeong-geun called for
maximum penalties to be imposed on the crew.
The maximum penalty for homicide is death, for abandoning
ship, life in prison, and for negligence, lengthy jail terms.
"It is clearly homicide, so we don't have to go through
prosecution and defence," Yoo said. "I think the heaviest
punishment is one way to prevent other people from being so
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)