GWANGJU, South Korea, April 28 (UPI) -- The South Korean captain of the sunken ferry Sewol was sentenced to life in prison after an appeals court reversed a lighter sentence that acquitted him of homicide.
Lee June-seok, 69, was charged with "murder through willful negligence" when he and the crew deserted the sinking ferry without attempting a rescue, The New York Times reported.
After abandoning the hundreds of passengers on board, Lee and his crew were among the first to be rescued by South Korean coast guards, The Wall Street Journal reported, as 304 people died on board.
In November during a lower court trial, Lee said he was guilty of a crime "for which I should die." The court charged Lee with criminal negligence and sentenced him to 36 years in prison, a term that was extended to life on Tuesday.
The remaining 14 crew members, however, received reduced jail sentences. Some who had received sentences of 30 years now face 11 to 12 years in prison.
When the ship began to tilt and sink, crew members had urged passengers to stay put while they made their way to safety. As captain, Lee failed to give an order to evacuate, a step that could have saved lives.
Park Gi-ho, the ship's chief engineer, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder through willful negligence. The appeals court in Gwangju said he could have saved two injured cooks but reversed his sentence to 10 years on lighter charges.
Seo Kyong-hwan, the judge at the Gwangju court, said, "Because of Capt. Lee's irresponsible behavior, many young students died without their lives blossoming."
Investigators into the Sewol ferry sinking said the regulators who colluded with Sewol's parent company on ship overloading and the South Korean Coast Guard's delayed response were also at fault for the tragedy at sea.