Costa Concordia verdict looms: "Reckless" captain to learn fate

Costa Concordia's captain Francesco Schettino is pictured during a break at is trial on February 9, 2015 in Grosseto.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

GROSSETO, Italy -- Whatever verdict is delivered in the trial of the Italian sea captain for the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner and for the deaths of 32 people, survivors and victims' families already are wondering if justice will be done.

The trial, expected to bring a verdict this week, has a sole defendant. Francesco Schettino is accused of causing the shipwreck on the night of Jan. 13, 2012, when he steered too close to a tiny Tuscan island, smashing into a granite reef that sliced open the hull, sending seawater rushing in.

Schettino is also charged with multiple manslaughter and injury, and of abandoning the luxury liner when many of the 4,200 passengers and crew were still aboard and desperately trying to save themselves - some by leaping into the sea - as the Concordia was capsizing.

Survivors, shivering as they staggered ashore on Giglio Island, were startled to see the captain, already safe on land, "without even getting his feet wet," noted Prosecutor Alessandro Leopizzi in closing arguments.

The cruise company, Costa Crociere SpA, has put the blame squarely on Schettino.

On Monday, Schettino was in court with a fever for final arguments, said his lawyer Domenico Pepe. Schettino has repeatedly denied abandoning ship, saying he was thrown off as the ship capsized.

Testifying in December, Schettino denied taking the route near Giglio island to impress a Moldovan dancer he had brought to the bridge. The woman has testified the two were lovers.

Pepe challenged prosecution contentions that Schettino should have immediately dropped anchor and ordered all to abandon ship. Had anchor been lowered, the lawyer claimed, the Concordia would have quickly sunk - instead of eventually coming to rest, on its side, on a rocky seabed outside the port - and thousands would have perished.

"Like a good sailor, he read the wind and went ahead," Pepe said. Schettino was following a mariner's adage that "the ship is the best lifeboat," the lawyer argued.

Schettino became a sort of national villain when a recording emerged of an exasperated Coast Guard official's futile, repeated attempts, even resorting to an obscenity, to order him to return aboard. It was also played for the three-judge jury.

His lawyer told the court that prosecutors had offended an honest and "upright" man in their final arguments, during which they had portrayed Schettino as a liar and a "reckless idiot."

Judge Giovanni Puliatti indicated on Monday that the trial will last at least another day, with deliberations to follow. Testimony has highlighted errors by other crew, and equipment malfunctions in the chaotic hours surrounding the collision. In closing appeals to the court, lawyers for survivors and for victims' families insisted that senior executives of Costa Crociere be made to pay hefty damages for so much death and suffering.

"Something is missing in this trial of Schettino," said Cesare Bulgheroni, a lawyer who represents a Greek couple who survived and the estate of a German woman who didn't. "It is incomplete because, in our view, other responsibilities, beyond his, emerged."

In a phone interview, Bulgheroni highlighted some of what went wrong. An emergency diesel generator didn't work; elevators didn't shut down for safety reasons during the disaster; some crew didn't speak Italian, the ship's working language, and others barely spoke English. The Indonesian-born helmsman botched a last-minute maneuver ordered by Schettino because he apparently didn't understand the command, as testimony revealed during the 19-month-long trial.

Schettino's lawyer told the court in his final arguments that perhaps one reason some of the lifeboats weren't lowered was because not all of them had been tested in an equipment check three months before the collision.

"All of those 32 (who died) could have fit in one lifeboat," said Pepe.

Helicopters plucked many of the survivors to safety after there were no more functioning lifeboats.

Bulgheroni and other lawyers for civil plaintiffs have banded together in a network called "Justice for the Concordia." They contend that Costa Crociere's board of directors should be equally responsible.

"We didn't have those people in the dock. There was only Schettino," Bulgheroni said. He said people didn't die because the ship hit the rocks, they perished "because they weren't helped in the emergency."

In 2013, a judge in Tuscany fined the company 1 million euros (then $1.3 million). Costa had asked for a plea bargain deal to respond to administration sanctions, which, under Italian law, are given for companies whose employees commit crimes.

Five Costa Crociere employees were allowed to enter plea bargains in exchange for lenient sentences. None of them is serving prison time. They include the helmsman and the company's land-based crisis coordinator, who, prosecutors said, downplayed the severity of the emergency.

Prosecutors have asked the court to convict Schettino and sentence him to more than 26 years in prison.

"Whether it is 26, 20, 10, to us it doesn't matter," another lawyer for plaintiffs, Massimiliano Gabrielli, argued in court. He added: "For this trial to have really served a purpose ... Costa Crociere must be made to pay."

Costa Crociere's lawyer at the trial, Marco De Luca, scoffed at the demand for punitive damages. He told reporters outside the courtroom that it's "not in the least bit possible ... that Costa Crociere in some measure could have been able to prevent a disaster of this kind."

In November, the body of an Indian waiter who was the last missing victim of the shipwreck was found by crews dismantling the vessel.

The Concordia was transferred to Genoa this summer, where it was being dismantled and scrapped.