Can Costa Concordia's captain get a fair trial in Italy?

The amount of public anger directed toward the captain of the Costa Concordia, which wrecked off the Italian coast last week, may prevent him from receiving fair legal treatment.

Giacomo Aprili/AP
In this photo taken Jan. 14 and made available Wednesday, Jan. 18, Francesco Schettino, the captain of the luxury cruiser Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Italy's Tuscan tiny island of Isola del Giglio, is arrested in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy.

Francesco Schettino, the captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia, has become one of the most maligned men in Italy. Public condemnation and media hype is so strong that there are concerns he will be unable to get a fair trial in the country, where he has been dubbed "Captain Coward." 

After spending two days in jail, Mr. Schettino is under house arrest awaiting trial. He has been charged with multiple counts of manslaughter and of abandoning the ship and could face more than 15 years in jail if convicted for the shipwreck that left at least 11 dead off the coast of Tuscany. The Italian public has pinned the blame for the accident on Schettino and also criticized him for abandoning the ship before evacuation was complete. 

“The guy is now seen as the ultimate evil and it will be tough for judges to resist the mounting pressure of the public opinion,” says Maurizio Tortorella, a well-known Italian legal affairs commentator and deputy editor of Panorama magazine. The fact that Schettino is under house arrest is suspicious, he says.

“The man obviously has responsibilities but in a democracy you need to have some good reason to keep a person under arrest ahead of trial,” Mr. Tortorella says. According to Italian law, suspects can be detained in three cases: if there is risk of a repeat offense, a risk of tampering with evidence, or if the suspect is considered a flight risk.

“Now, the chances of Schettino causing a second ship wreck are close to zero unless someone forces him on a boat,” Tortorella says. “He obviously cannot flee anywhere, since he has hundreds of reporters stationed outside his home. And I can't see how he could contaminate the evidence, which is literally buried under the sea.” 

Schettino was jailed a few hours after he was brought to the mainland Friday night. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio said he hoped to keep him in prison until the trial was over, but Judge Valeria Montesarchio refused to authorize Schettino’s imprisonment, instead putting him under house arrest in his family’s home near Naples. A start date for the trial has yet to be determined.

Many, including the prosecutor, protested Ms. Montesarchio’s decision. “Captain Coward is free to go,” read a front page headline in Libero, Italy's leading conservative newspaper.

Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, responded "You cannot keep someone in jail just because the public opinion thinks he's guilty.”

According to another news agency, ANSA, prosecutors will soon test Schettino for drugs and alcohol because there are suspicions he was under the influence at the time of the accident. 

Other factors have complicated the trial. Costa Cruise, the company that owns the Costa Concordia, has been “quite inconsistent," says Tortorella. The company has stated it will ask for financial compensation from the captain and side with the prosecution, but it is still paying for Schettino’s legal expenses. 

Costa Cruise has pinned the blame entirely on Schettino, claiming it was unaware of his intention to divert from the planned course, causing the accident, or the seriousness of the situation. Recorded telephone conversations leaked yesterday indicate that at least seven phone calls between company representatives and the captain were made after the grounding of the cruise boat and that the company may have been more aware of developments on the ship than it previously said.

Investigators are trying to track down someone they believe could be a key witness. An off-duty Costa Cruise employee, Domnica Cemortan, was reportedly on the bridge with the captain at the time of the accident, where she would have had a good view of the accident.

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