Earthquake Experts Convicted of Manslaughter

22 October 2012 3:10 pm

L'AQUILA, ITALY—Seven experts tasked with giving advice ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck here in 2009 have been found guilty of manslaughter by a judge in the central Italian town this evening. The four scientists, two engineers, and a government official were accused of having carried out a superficial analysis of seismic risk and of having provided false reassurances to the public ahead of the quake, which killed 309 people. The prosecution had requested prison terms of 4 years for the accused, but Judge Marco Billi has handed each a sentence of 6 years imprisonment. The lawyers of the convicted say they will appeal the verdict.

Alfredo Biondi, the defense lawyer for one of the seven, Claudio Eva, a seismologist at the University of Genova, says the verdict was "extremely mistaken" and that he was "sorry" because he had "great faith in the law and those who apply it." He added: "When someone says how things are, they shouldn't end up in jail for 6 years."

"I think it is truth and justice," says Vincenzo Vittorini, who lost his wife and daughter in the quake. "It wasn't a trial against science; it was a trial against those who didn't know how to evaluate the risk, who didn't know to mitigate the risk. What we have been trying to say for 3 years has been affirmed today in an important way."

"It's incredible that scientists trying to do their job under the direction of a government agency have been convicted for criminal manslaughter," says earth scientist Thomas Jordan of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "We know that the system for communicating risk before the L'Aquila earthquake was flawed, but this verdict will cast a pall over any attempt to improve it. I'm afraid that many scientists are learning to keep their mouths shut. This won't help those of us who are trying to improve risk communication between scientists and the public."

All seven convicted took part in a meeting of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks that was held in L'Aquila on 31 March 2009, 6 days before the quake struck. They are: the commission's then-vice-president Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome (Roma Tre); Enzo Boschi, a geophysicist at the University of Bologna and at the time of the earthquake president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV); Gian Michele Calvi, a seismic engineer at the University of Pavia; Eva; Mauro Dolce, a seismic engineer and director of seismic risk at Italy's Civil Protection Department (DPC); Giulio Selvaggi, a seismologist at INGV; and Bernardo De Bernardinis, a hydraulic engineer who in 2009 was deputy head of DPC.

The meeting was convened on 30 March 2009 by then-head of the DPC Guido Bertolaso with the stated aim of providing authoritative information on a seismic "swarm" of small- and medium-sized tremors that had shaken the town over the previous 3 months. The prosecution alleged that the information provided by the experts led to many people staying indoors on the night of 5 to 6 April 2009, rather than seeking safety outside as they had done following earlier tremors, having been trained to do so from a young age. It was that change in behavior, charged the prosecution, which caused the deaths of 30 of the victims.

In his closing arguments on 24 September, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti underlined that the men were not being charged with having failed to predict the exact time, place, and magnitude of the deadly quake, information that he said modern science was not able to provide. Instead, he told the court, the defendants made a series of "banal and self-contradictory" statements during their 2009 meeting, many of which were "at best scientifically useless" or, worse, "misleading."

Among the most controversial statements highlighted by the prosecution were those made by De Bernardinis in a television interview ahead of the meeting. The DPC deputy head said that the ongoing tremors posed "no danger" and that the "the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation." In fact, he said, the ongoing tremors helped discharge energy. This statement was particularly reassuring, according to a number of court testimonies by friends and relatives of the victims, because it suggested the danger decreased with each tremor.

In responding to the prosecution's charges, Boschi's lawyer Marcello Melandri was keen to distance the statements of De Bernardinis from those of the rest of the commission, telling the court that, according to Picuti's reasoning, "De Bernardinis suddenly becomes a prophet" insofar as he made his comments before and not after the meeting. Francesco Petrelli, meanwhile, said it was "impossible" to regard as reassuring comments on the unpredictability of earthquakes made by his client, then-commission vice-president Barberi, in a press interview after the meeting. De Bernardinis's advocate, Filippo Dinacci, also emphasized the impossibility of predicting earthquakes. "We are asking the conviction of seven Christians just because an event happened," he told the court.

Responding to this point this morning, Picuti argued that the defense failed to distinguish between a natural disaster and the risk of such a disaster. While an earthquake is impossible to predict, he said, its risk can be predicted. That logic, he maintained, is born out in the very name of the commission.

The trial has already run for more than a year, but it may be a while still before the end of the legal process. Now that the judge has announced the verdict, he has up to 90 days to deposit a document explaining his reasoning, and the defense will then have 45 days to lodge an appeal. But with two or even three stages, says civil party lawyer Fabio Alessandroni, the appeals process could last up to 6 years.

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