Cosco Busan pilot wants Chinese crew members kept in U.S.

The local pilot who was at the helm of the Cosco Busan container ship when it struck the Bay Bridge in November asked the government Friday to keep six of the ship’s Chinese crew members in the country for his trial.

Capt. John Cota, of Petaluma, is facing jail time if convicted on criminal charges that he negligently caused the crash that led to the spill of more than 50,000 gallons of oil into the Bay on Nov. 7. His trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 17.

Onboard the Cosco Busan that day there were also six Chinese crew members. They made a series of blunders that contributed to the container ship’s crash, the U.S. Department of Justice has alleged in charges brought against the workers’ employer, Fleet Management. Attorneys for the crew members have acknowledged that they forged documents to mislead investigators.

“The government has decided to bring criminal charges against only one individual, Captain Cota, and has given or intends to give all six crew members immunity,” Cota’s attorney, Jeffrey Bornstein, wrote in a court filing. “While we believe that the court needs to balance the rights of these witnesses to return home, the fact remains that there is no substitute for having them appear in person for trial before the jury.”

An attorney for the ship’s master, Capt. Mao Cai Sun, has argued that his client should be allowed to return home from Northern California, where he has been detained since the accident with the rest of the crew. The crew members are living in a hotel.

“The incredibly long detention of a foreign national who has not been accused of any crime is unheard of and violates his constitutional rights,” attorney Douglas Schwartz wrote in a court filing earlier this month. “If it were American citizens being held in China under similar circumstances, it is difficult to believe our country would sit idle and mute.”

The crew is scheduled to provide evidence in the form of depositions next month, but Cota’s attorney on Friday asked a judge to continue detaining the crew so they can provide evidence in front of a jury. Prosecutors in court filings asked for four of the crew members to be detained until the trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero will decide whether to allow the crew to return home before the trial.

One crew member, Zong Bin Li, was given permission in late August to return to China to visit his ailing grandmother, court documents show. His attorney, Jonathan Howden, said in a court filing that Li obtained a work permit and Social Security card and plans to return to his job in the United States “indefinitely” when he returns to San Francisco.

The latest legal wrangling is not the only legal action associated with the Cosco Busan incident.

In addition to criminal charges brought against Fleet Management, the international shipping company is being sued, along with ship owner Regal Stone, by the Justice Department for cleanup costs and other damages caused by the accident.

The two companies recently argued in court documents that the state of California is liable for damages because one of its doctors wrongly gave Cota the clean bill of health needed to renew his license.

The companies have also argued that the United States is liable for damages for because the U.S. Coast Guard issued the license to Cota, who allegedly relies on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to treat a long list of ailments, including sleep apnea.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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