A panel of three South Korean judges will announce a verdict in the five-month culpable homicide trial of Lee Joon-seok, the 68-year-old captain in command of a ferry whose sinking killed at least 304 people in April. If convicted, Lee could face the death penalty.
A death sentence is considered unlikely, as South Korea has not executed a convict in more than 15 years, Reuters reports. In addition to Lee, 14 of the ferry’s crew members face prison terms. Three crew members face life in prison, while the others face terms of 15 to 30 years.
The South Korean ferry capsized on April 16 during a routine trip to the island of Jeju. Lee was not at the helm when a sharp turn caused the ferry to tip over. Officials blamed the incident on the ferry’s overloaded cargo hold and an inexperienced helmsman. Lee and his crew members were among the first to abandon ship. Survivors testified that the ship’s crew urged them to stay on the ferry.
“Lee supplied the cause of the sinking of the Sewol … he has the heaviest responsibility for the accident,” lead prosecutor Park Jae-eok told the district court in October. “We ask that the court sentence him to death.”
Authorities rescued 172 of the Sewol’s 476 passengers, but 250 schoolchildren died in the accident. Footage of the crew abandoning ship generated outrage during the trial. Lee claimed that he issued an evacuation order, but that the ship's passengers ignored his plea. Other crew members testified that they thought the South Korean coast guard was responsible for facilitating an evacuation.
Lee apologized to victims’ families in October for his role in the incident. “I committed a grave sin. I’m sorry,” he said. “I know I cannot get out of prison, but I must not let my children and grandchildren live being called family members of a murder.”