Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino asks for a plea bargain as his trial starts

Trial begins for Costa Concorida captain

GROSSETO, Italy - The cruise ship captain accused of causing the deaths of 32 people in last year's Costa Concordia cruise disaster asked for a plea bargain Wednesday as his trial got under way in Italy.

Francesco Schettino faces three criminal charges: involuntary manslaughter for the deaths; causing a maritime disaster; and causing personal injury to 150 people who were badly hurt in the accident.

The trial, being held in Grosseto, begins a year and a half after the luxury cruise liner ran aground off the west coast of Italy.

If convicted on all charges, Schettino could face a sentence of about 25 years in total. But his lawyers may argue that he serve his sentence under a form of house arrest, since there's virtually no danger of him repeating the offense.

The prosecutor voiced his opposition to the request for a plea bargain.

The trial was due to start last week but was postponed because lawyers involved in the case were taking part in a nationwide strike to protest measures aimed at streamlining civil trials.

Schettino was in court with his lawyers for Wednesday's hearing, the start of a process that will be closely watched in Italy and elsewhere.

The Costa Concordia, carrying 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members, made global headlines when it turned on its side after striking rocks off the Italian island of Giglio on January 13, 2012.

According to passengers' accounts, chaos ensued that night, as guests rushed to fill lifeboats and escape the shipwreck. Some crew members helped passengers and then jumped overboard, passengers said; remaining crew members seemed helpless to handle the melee.

The case centers on several questions, including why it allegedly took Schettino more than an hour to issue an order to abandon ship and why he allegedly left the vessel before all passengers had abandoned it.

Given the complicated nature of the case, the trial could drag on for a year or more.

Running in tandem with the criminal prosecution are numerous civil suits against Schettino, which can be heard at the same time. This means 250 civil parties are also represented in court.

The civil plaintiffs include the Costa cruise line, which is suing Schettino for causing the accident and destroying its ship.

However, many of the civil parties and Schettino's own lawyers are asking that Costa and its parent company, Carnival, also be considered as criminal defendants in the trial.

They suggest that responsibility for the handling of the situation after the shipwreck, including any delay in the order to abandon ship, should extend beyond the captain.

Evidence presented to the court is likely to include conversations between Schettino and cruise line emergency officials on the night of the accident.

The 32 deaths occurred during the abandonment of the ship rather than in its impact with the rocks.

Meanwhile, the Costa Concordia lies half-submerged on its side on the shore of Giglio Island, rusting and rotting in the waters off Tuscany's coast.

Nearly 500 workers are involved in an operation led by Titan Salvage to remove the wreck while protecting the marine environment.

Titan and Costa Cruises said last week they hope to be able to rotate the vessel to a vertical position in September. They will then be able to assess whether it can be refloated and towed away.

Journalists Barbie Latza Nadeau and Livia Borghese reported from Grosseto, and CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London.


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