South Korean Ferry Crew Charged With Homicide, And Now They Could Face the Death Penalty

Nearly a month after their initial arrest, four crew members of the sunken South Korean ferry were charged with homicide on Thursday, while the rest of the 15-member crew faced the less severe charges of negligence. If convicted, the 68-year-old ship captain, Lee Joon-seok — known also as the captain who escaped in his underwear — along with the ferry's chief engineer, the chief mate, and the second mate, could all be looking at either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Since the ship capsized on April 16, leaving 281 dead and 23 still missing, both the ferry and its crew have been under intense scrutiny. Seven of the ferry's crew members have been blasted for being the first to escape the sinking ship, getting on life rafts while telling the hundreds of passengers — mostly schoolkids — to stay on the ferry. Captain Lee Joon-seok in particular has come under fire for his behavior as the ferry capsized: not only was he not on at the helm of the ship as it began to tilt — leaving first-time steerer Park Han-gyeol in charge — a recent video showed the captain jumping into the arms of a rescuer as the rest of the passengers clung on for dear life. On Thursday, the captain, the two ship’s mates, Kang Won-sik and Kim Young-ho; and the ferry’s chief engineer, Park Gi-ho, were all charged with murder.

Not all the blame has been focused on the crew, however. As Bustle previously reported, recent investigations have shown that the ferry was constantly overloaded in the year or or so before it sank — on the day it capsized, it was carrying over three times its weight. And part of the way more cargo was piled on there was by reducing the ship's ballast water, a key mechanism in keeping the boat stable.

RT on YouTube

Although it's been nearly twenty years since capital punishment was used in South Korea, it's still a legal possibility, and public outrage at the tragic disaster may be a factor in how the court proceedings go down. According to the Korea Herald, it's still not clear whether the crew members will face a trial of their peers — the law requires all defendants to agree to a jury trial, and doing so may not be in their favor.