Skip to main content

Angry families scream at South Korean ferry captain, crew as trial begins

By Paula Hancocks, K.J. Kwon and Greg Botelho, CNN
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
  • NEW: President says it makes no sense that the ferry company's believed owner remains at large
  • Ferry captain pleads not guilty to murder charge tied to the April 16 sinking
  • His lawyer says others are "more responsible," accuses some of shifting blame
  • Relatives of the almost 300 people killed on the ferry yell at the crew members in court

Gwangju, South Korea (CNN) -- They've waited for this day for nearly two months -- to look the crew of the doomed Sewol ferry in the eyes and tell them how they felt.

On Tuesday, inside a courtroom in the southwestern South Korean city of Gwangju, relatives of the some 300 killed on that ship -- many of them schoolchildren -- got their chance.

Yelling and screaming, those with loved ones from that stricken ferry vented Tuesday at Capt. Lee Joon-seok and 14 members of his crew. As a family representative explained in court, while weeks have passed since the April 16 sinking, their grief and anger have not.

"For us, time has stopped," he said. "When I see students wearing school uniforms, I feel like my child will come back home and say, 'Dad, I'm home.'"

While there's no bringing back those killed, the trial does intend to bring a degree of justice -- though both sides have very different ideas on what that entails.

Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks
Trial underway for ferry captain, crew
Ferry CEO charged with negligence

Lee pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.

According to his lawyer, the captain is already living with guilt from the fact he left the ferry before everybody was rescued.

Attorney Lee Gwang-jae said that Lee was only helming the ship for six days, he was the last rescued of all the crew members and he wasn't in charge of loading cargo.

Investigators have said a vast amount of cargo, more than double the ferry's limit, and the failure to tie it down properly were partly responsible for the capsizing of the Sewol, which was carrying 476 passengers and crew.

"I am concerned that those who are more responsible are shifting blame to the defendant," said the attorney.

Some in the court weren't convinced -- yelling after the lawyer's statement.

And, of course, neither was the prosecution.

According to its version of events, the crew members could have carried out a far more effective rescue operation. They could have listened to requests for help, rather than ignored them. They could have made taking care of the passengers their first priority, rather than taking care of themselves.

According to the prosecution, what several members of the crew did can be summed up in one word: Murder.

292 confirmed dead, 12 still missing

The captain and three of his crew members are facing murder charges. If convicted, they could face the death penalty, although it has been nearly two decades since capital punishment was last carried out in South Korea.

Ferry victim's haunting cry for mom
First ship on scene saw no evacuation
South Korean ferry company's safety issues

The other crew members have been indicted on charges of abandonment and violating a ship safety act.

The accused entered the Gwangju courtroom Tuesday wearing light green or light blue outfits. They were told to asked to stand and state their names, national ID numbers and addresses, before prosecutors read out the charges.

A judge, not a jury, will decide their fate.

His decision could provide a degree of closure to the family members. But the feelings are still raw about the sinking of a vessel that should have been on a fairly routine four-day excursion from the city of Ansan to Jeju Island.

The anger has been directed in many ways. Some blame the ferry company, saying it put profits before people in dangerously loading so much cargo. Others have chastised the government, for what they see as an inadequate response as well as regulation. And -- as was obvious in court Tuesday -- many blast crew members for not sounding the alarm sooner and doing more to help passengers to safety.

Dozens of passengers did survive. Some 292 others are confirmed dead. Twelve others remain missing.

Lawyer questions: Is a fair trial possible?

The ferry's owner, Chonghaejin Shipping Company, was targeted Tuesday by prosecutors who claimed it put money -- by loading so much cargo -- above all else.

But the crew is also culpable, the prosecution says. The cargo was not just overloaded, but badly secured, it says.

Then there are the allegations that that the crew did not use facilities at their disposal, such as life rafts, life vests and announcements to evacuate passengers. Instead, according to officials, passengers were told to stay where they were.

President Park Geun-hye has already reached her own conclusion, calling the actions of the captain and surviving crew "akin to murder."

That kind of attitude -- even before the trial began -- led a lawyer who visited the captain and two crew members in custody to question whether the trial can be fair.

Attorney Kang Jung-min says Sewol crew members have been demonized by the Korean media.

Kang told CNN: "The public and the court does not have a good impression of the crew members, so the crew are likely to become the scapegoats."

Search for ferry company owner

Meanwhile, the hunt continues for South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry.

Billionaire Yoo Byung Eun, 73, and his two sons are believed to have controlled the Chonghaejin Shipping Company through an investment vehicle and subsidiary, according to the semi-official Yonhap news agency.

Yoo is wanted for questioning in connection with an investigation into alleged funds embezzlement, tax evasion and other irregularities that prosecutors say could have contributed to the sinking, and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

South Korean TV channel YTN reported Wednesday that some 6,000 police officers had entered a large religious compound owned by the Evangelical Baptist Church, also known as Gu Won Pa -- in which Yoo is a leading religious figure.

A number of arrests have taken place, YTN reported. The officers are searching for Yoo and his son, as well as suspects believed to have helped him avoid arrest so far.

Four members of the religious group were arrested last month, accused of aiding him.

The President said Tuesday in a statement that prosecutors and police had been working hard to arrest Yoo and that "it doesn't make sense that he is still not caught."

She said authorities should look again at whether additional methods can be used, and that all measures should be considered so that Yoo faces justice.

In late April, Yoo's representatives sent a statement denying that he had any direct or indirect connection to Chonghaejin Marine Company.

READ: What went wrong on Sewol?

READ: South Korean president dismantles coast guard after ferry disaster

READ: Shocking images of ferry captain abandoning ship

CNN's Paula Hancocks and K.J. Kwon reported from South Korea; Greg Botelho wrote from Atlanta.

Part of complete coverage on
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 0402 GMT (1202 HKT)
South Korean forensics officials say they are sure the body found in a field last month is Yoo Byung Eun.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
The trial of the captain and crew began, with the accused facing the families of the victims.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 0252 GMT (1052 HKT)
South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry, has eluded arrest for weeks.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
South Korea's President apologized for a ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 0323 GMT (1123 HKT)
Here are 7 major factors that contributed to the ship's sinking.
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
The words and images from the cell phone of a girl who perished on the South Korean ferry convey the rising panic aboard.
May 14, 2014 -- Updated 0556 GMT (1356 HKT)
In one video, the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry scrambles to safety. In another, stranded passengers panic.
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
As the death toll from the ferry disaster continues to rise, yellow ribbons have evolved into a national sign of grief.
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
Choi Duk-Ha, 17, is credited for saving the lives of many on the ferry. He later died and is now hailed as a hero.
April 28, 2014 -- Updated 1931 GMT (0331 HKT)
CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the rising anger as South Koreans learn more about the final moments of the doomed vessel.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0314 GMT (1114 HKT)
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Ship stability expert Paul Roden about whether the cargo lead to the ferry disaster.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT)
South Korea is not only a nation in mourning, but also a country overwhelmed with guilt. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets as the stricken ferry began to sink, refusing to wear one herself. It cost her life.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
South Korean students remember their vice principal, who took his own life after the ferry sinking.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry is defending his actions as rescuers continue the search for survivors.
April 20, 2014 -- Updated 0201 GMT (1001 HKT)
CNN's Kyung Lah reports on suicide in South Korea following news of a capsized ferry.