Francesco Schettino arrived in court ahead of his defense’s closing arguments in Grosseto, Italy, on Monday in a dark wool scarf after fighting off a weekend flu that kept him out of court last week.
“I had a high fever,” he told CNN during the coffee break at Monday’s trial. “But I’m better now.”
Schettino, who was the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship when it crashed into the rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio, in January 2012, is facing 26 years in prison for charges of causing a maritime disaster, abandoning ship and multiple counts of manslaughter for the 32 people who lost their lives in the accident.
A three-judge panel heard testimony from technical experts, passengers and crew members who were on the vessel at the time of the accident. During the 19-month trial, they also heard from the captain’s female guest on the cruise, Domnica Cermortan, a Moldovan dancer who testified under duress that she was in a romantic relationship with the captain and that she was with him on the bridge when the accident occurred.
Schettino’s lead lawyer Domenico Pepe began his closing arguments on Monday by referring to the fact that the champagne bottle used to christen the ill-fated vessel when it was put into service in 2006 did not break. “Everything about this ship and this process since then has been a mystery so far,” he said.
Pepe then addressed each of the charges against the captain, starting with causing a shipwreck and maritime disaster. He repeated the accusation that because his helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin allegedly did not understand English — a language he was required to speak — when Schettino gave the orders to turn the ship away from the island, he, in fact, caused the accident, not Schettino.
Rusli Bin was subpoenaed to testify, but his last known address was in Indonesia and he could not be forced to come to the court in Italy.
Pepe said Schettino had been vilified from the moment the ship wrecked, and that the negative image has hurt his case. “This man, the accused,” he said pointing to Schettino, “was arrested immediately, he was prejudged as an assassin.”
He then went on to criticize the prosecutor who referred to Schettino as an “idiot” in his closing arguments last week.
“Schettino is a good man,” he said. “He is not an idiot.” He then suggested that finding Schettino not guilty would actually be good for Italy’s image, somehow restoring it in the eyes of the world who have seen this case as an example of Italian ineptitude.
Schettino’s defense has hinged in part on alleged malfunctions of the ship’s equipment and infrastructure, including claims that the ship had faulty watertight doors and generators, and that the elevators did not work when the ship was listing.
“Everything that did not work on the ship is part of the cause of the accident,” Pepe told the court. “Lights didn’t work. People fell into holes. Elevators got stuck.”
These claims were hard to verify because much of the ship was immersed off the coast of Giglio for many months after the accident.
Pepe tried to explain why his client left the ship ahead of so many passengers, part of the charge of abandoning ship. He used an elaborate graphic to illustrate the inclination of the ship at the time Schettino apparently lost his balance and fell into the lifeboat that took him to shore. He said that once on shore, Schettino was able to conduct the rescue operation and that he never lost control of the operation.
Pepe then addressed the famous exchange between Gregorio De Falco — commander of the Livorno Port Authority the night of the accident — and Schettino, during which De Falco told Schettino to “get back on board for f**k’s sake.” Pepe called De Falco’s tone degrading and said the commander was unprofessional and egotistic at a moment when he should have been a voice of calm.
Pepe suggested it was De Falco’s stern manner, rather than Schettino’s apparent ineptitude, that damaged Italy’s reputation.
He then showed what were intended to be compromising photos of De Falco with a local Italian journalist to imply that De Falco was involved in some sort of conspiracy to set up Schettino. “In the exchange that gained national attention, De Falco was painted as a hero when he should not have been,” Pepe said.
Pepe said his client could not have returned to the ship when it was on its side without risking his life. “He’s not superman or a spider,” he told the court, before asking them to “absolve Schettino of abandoning ship.”
Addressing the manslaughter charges, Pepe tried to bolster his argument that because no one died on impact when the ship slammed into the rocks, Schettino cannot be held liable.
Everyone who perished lost their lives as a result of the chaotic evacuation, he said.
Pepe defended Schettino’s decision to delay the call to abandon ship by nearly an hour. “Stop for a minute to consider what would have happened if he had abandoned ship 1 kilometer from shore,” Pepe said. “There could be 4,500 dead, not 32.” (There were 4,229 passengers and crew on the ship)
Five Costa officials, including the head of the crisis center, Roberto Ferrarini, were granted plea bargains with fines paid by Costa Cruise company and suspended prison sentences, Pepe said. Ferrarini and Schettino were on the phone more than a dozen times between the moment the Concordia hit the rocks and when the call to abandon ship was made, he said.
Pepe accused the Costa Chairman Michael Thamm of interfering in the case by moving a large number of Costa employees from Genoa to Switzerland, and essentially paying the fines and buying freedom for the other suspects. “Schettino should be judged like the others at fault,” he said.
Schettino was denied a plea bargain similar to that his five colleagues were granted. Pepe instead insisted that money was the motivation behind the Costa company trying to pin the blame on Schettino. “There is a lot of money at play here,” he told the court. “There is a lot of money at risk.”
Schettino’s third lawyer Donato Laino, who is handling the technical aspects of the defense, said that Schettino navigated the ship “with an organization” — not single-handedly. “He was annoying as a commander,” Laino said, referring to Schettino as someone whose attention to detail borders on perfectionism.
Lawyers for 16 civil parties, including the island of Giglio, which are included in criminal trials in Italy, will have a chance to offer final arguments along with the prosecutor. Then Schettino’s defense team will have one more chance at a brief final rebuttal before the three-judge panel retires to deliberate.
A verdict could come on Tuesday evening or, more likely, on Wednesday.