Former captain of S. Korean ferry sentenced to 36 years for disaster that killed over 300

(CNN) -- Lee Joon-Seok, the captain widely derided by families for leaping to safety while the hundreds of people remained inside the sinking South Korean ferry, was sentenced Tuesday to 36 years in jail. But he was acquitted of murder.

The sentence was the culmination of a five-month trial. A panel of three judges delivered the verdict and the sentence for Lee, who was accused of murder for his conduct on the Sewol ferry that sunk on April 16.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Lee, alleging that he did not use the available equipment such as life rafts, life vests and announcements to evacuate the passengers.

South Korea has not carried out the death penalty since 1997, and in recent years, the death penalty has essentially meant life imprisonment.

More than 300 people died after the ferry capsized on the southwestern coast of South Korea in April. Almost 250 of them were suburban high school students on their way to a field trip.

Nine people remain missing. The government ended the underwater search on Tuesday after searching for about seven months.

"Conditions of the search has reached dangerous situation, for instance like the collapse of compartments within the ferry," said Lee Ju-young, the South Korean Minister of Oceans and Fisheries. "As the winter season approaches, conditions in the sea are deteriorating.

He said the chances of the finding the last victims were waning and that the sea conditions could cause casualties.

The ferry will be sealed, but the decision on a salvage operation will be made after considering various conditions and consulting with the families and experts.

Crew scorned and blamed

Damning photos of Lee, dressed in a shirt and underwear, jumping into the arms of rescuers triggered widespread revulsion. While, there's no international maritime law that says a captain has to go down with his or her ship, his actions drew widespread criticism and it cemented in many people's mind that the captain had prioritized his safety over that of his passengers.

Even South Korean President Park Geun-hye chimed in, calling the actions of Lee and his crew as "akin to murder."

Lee has apologized numerous times, saying his actions were not intentional.

"I was stunned by the accident and I lost my ability to make decisions. I swear I never thought passengers should be left dying in order for me to make it to safety first."

Lee and three other crew members were charged with murder in an emotional trial that began in June.

Several of the survivors testified that when the ship's troubles began, they were instructed over the announcement system to stay put rather than to evacuate. The ship eventually capsized, trapping hundreds of passengers inside.

Lee's defense has maintained that the captain had only been at the helm of the ship for six days and that he was not willfully negligent.

"The defendant comes to understand the responsibility and is relying on psychological medication and also sleeping pills," his lawyer, Lee Gwang-jae told the court earlier this month. "He has an apologetic mindset and is living everyday as if walking on a thorny field, fearing that what he has done may be passed onto his family."

Lee had not been steering at the time when the ship listed that April morning. Lee told the court he was in his room, smoking and changing his clothes when trouble began on the ship. He acknowledged that he knew that the person who was steering did not have the proper skills.

"I failed to take the necessary measures for passengers to leave the ship," Lee said in court.

"I reflect and apologize to the victim's families -- to those who lost their beloved sons and daughters. To the fathers, I'd say: 'I've committed a sin, worthy of death.'"

A fair trial?

There have been some concern that the Sewol crew members were being publicly demonized, affecting their chances for fair trial. Their trial was so highly charged that some lawyers refused to represent Lee.

Investigators have said that a vast amount of cargo, more than double the ferry's limit, and the failure to tie it down properly were partly responsible for the capsizing of the Sewol.

"I am concerned that those who are more responsible are shifting blame to the defendant," said Lee's defense attorney, when the trial began.

The operators of the Cheonghaejin Marine Co, which ran the ill-fated ferry are also facing trial.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison term for Kim Han-sik, chief executive officer of the company, who is facing a manslaughter charge.

The Sewol disaster caused widespread outrage in South Korea over lax safety standards and the failure to rescue more people as the ship foundered.