Costa Concordia captain ordered to stand trial

Captian Francesco Schettino speaks to the media following a closed-door hearing in Torre Annunziata's courthouse, near Naples, Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013. AP Photo

ROME A Judge in Italy has ordered trial for the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off Italy last year, killing 32 people.

On Tuesday, Italian prosecutors rejected a plea bargain bid by the captain, defense lawyers said.

Capt. Francesco Schettino is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all 4,200 passengers and crew were evacuated.

Defense lawyer Francesco Pepe said Schettino had wanted to defend himself at a trial but when the five other defendants in the shipwreck off the Tuscan coast all sought plea bargains during a closed-door hearing Tuesday, his defense team decided to change strategy.

"We weren't planning on requesting a plea bargain. But when we saw the development in the hearing, we were practically obliged to do so," Pepe said.

Prosecutors agreed to plea bargains for the other five defendants but not for Schettino, lawyers said — meaning Schettino will be the only defendant.

Prosecutors left Tuesday's hearing without talking to reporters.

Prosecutors have alleged that Schettino steered the ship too dangerously close to the island in a publicity stunt but the captain says he is a being made a scapegoat. He contends the Concordia struck a reef that was not on nautical charts, although the jagged rock, close to the coast of the tiny island of Giglio, is well known to local sailors.

Schettino has depicted himself as a hero. He contends that his skillful handling of the ship after the collision on the evening of Jan. 13, 2012, help guide the crippled vessel closer to Giglio's port, making rescues easier and thus likely reducing the number of victims.

In seeking the plea bargain, Schettino's defense team sought a prison sentence of three years and four months. If he goes to trial and is convicted, Schettino could face as much as 20 years in prison, Pepe said.

The Concordia began taking on water and listing badly after its hull was gashed by the reef. Survivors have said the evacuation was delayed and chaotic and not all the lifeboats could be used because of the sharp tilt of the ship. Many passengers and crew jumped into the sea, swimming to safety on the island.

Last year, court-ordered experts pinned the blame for the grounding on Schettino. But they also said the crew and Costa Crociere SpA, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., made a series of blunders and safety breaches that contributed to the disaster. Experts concluded that crew members weren't properly trained or certified in safety and emergency drills, and that Costa had delayed alerting coastal authorities about the disaster, an accusation Costa has denied.

The wreck of the Concordia still lies on its side, a blight off the picturesque island of Giglio, surrounded by pristine waters.

Marine recovery experts have devised a complicated plan to roll the enormous cruise ship upright and tow it from the rocky seabed where it came to rest. Original estimates envisioned that the wreckage would be gone in time for this summer's tourist season, but that salvage timeframe has slipped back. It is not clear now when the cruise ship will be removed to a port on the Italian mainland.

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