Fifteen crew of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, most of them children, went on trial Tuesday on charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the shout going up of "murderer" as the captain entered the court.

Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three senior crew members were charged with homicide, facing a maximum sentence of death. Two were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Nine were charged with negligence, which can also carry jail terms.

Emotions ran high in court as family members appeared to have already convicted the crew who were caught on video abandoning ship, the captain in his underwear, while the children, obeying orders, waited in their cabins for further instructions.

As the defendants were led in, someone in the packed courtroom shouted: "That guy is the captain, isn't he? Murderer!"

One relative held up a sign that read: "You are not human. You are beneath animals." An altercation broke out between relatives and security guards who tried to take the sign away.

The Sewol, overloaded and traveling too fast on a turn, sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.

Mourning family members packed the court in Gwangju, the closest city to the scene of the disaster, as the 15 were led in and seated on two rows of benches.

The 15 have been in detention since they were charged in May.

A family member spoke on behalf of others at the start of the hearing, imploring the defendants to tell the truth.

"Would you have done the same if these were your children? Please imagine for a moment that they were your children who died and tell the truth."

The lawyer for the captain, in an opening statement, said his client had no power to stop the ferry company's practice of overloading the vessel with cargo.

The lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, also said the captain had not meant to cause the accident, and there were therefore no grounds for the homicide charge.

"It wasn't like he had a grudge against the children so it's difficult to accept the prosecution's argument that he wilfully neglected the duty of rescue and escaped to save himself," Lee told the court.

The sound of sobbing was heard throughout the courtroom as the state presented its case and the head prosecutor's voice broke when he recounted the last moments of some of the children.

'I don't know why this is happening'

One child was caught on video, recovered later, staring death in the face, the prosecutor said.

"I'm not a criminal, I don't know why this is happening," the child was quoted as saying. "I haven't done anything that bad."

The court suspended the hearing and set the next court appearance for next Tuesday.

About 20 relatives stood outside the court waiting for the defendants' bus to appear. Park Eun-hee, the mother of a girl who died on the ferry, denounced the crew's earlier defense that they had panicked.