L'Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter


The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says the prosecution argued that the scientists were "just too reassuring"

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Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

Many smaller tremors had rattled the area in the months before the quake that destroyed much of the historic centre.

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

Lawyers have said that they will appeal against the sentence. As convictions are not definitive until after at least one level of appeal in Italy, it is unlikely any of the defendants will immediately face prison.

'Alarming' case

The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

The Apennines, the belt of mountains that runs down through the centre of Italy, is riddled with faults, and the "Eagle" city of L'Aquila has been hammered time and time again by earthquakes. Its glorious old buildings have had to be patched up and re-built on numerous occasions.

Sadly, the issue is not "if" but "when" the next tremor will occur in L'Aquila. But it is simply not possible to be precise about the timing of future events. Science does not possess that power. The best it can do is talk in terms of risk and of probabilities, the likelihood that an event of a certain magnitude might occur at some point in the future.

The decision to prosecute some of Italy's leading geophysicists drew condemnation from around the world. The scholarly bodies said it had been beyond anyone to predict exactly what would happen in L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

But the authorities who pursued the seven defendants stressed that the case was never about the power of prediction - it was about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being misleadingly reassuring about the dangers that faced their city.

Nonetheless, the verdicts will come as a shock to all researchers in Italy whose expertise lies in the field of assessing natural hazards. Their pronouncements will be scrutinised as never before, and their fear will be that they too could find themselves embroiled in legal action over statements that are inherently uncertain.

In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.

In the closing statement, the prosecution quoted one of its witnesses, whose father died in the earthquake.

It described how Guido Fioravanti had called his mother at about 11:00 on the night of the earthquake - straight after the first tremor.

"I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed."

'Hasty sentence'

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.

Reacting to the verdict against him, Bernardo De Bernardinis said: "I believe myself to be innocent before God and men."

"My life from tomorrow will change," the former vice-president of the Civil Protection Agency's technical department said, according to La Repubblica.

"But, if I am judged by all stages of the judicial process to be guilty, I will accept my responsibility."

Another, Enzo Boschi, described himself as "dejected" and "desperate" after the verdict was read.

"I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of."

One of the lawyers for the defence, Marcello Petrelli, described the sentences as "hasty" and "incomprehensible".

'Inherently unpredictable'

The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial.


Bernardo De Bernardinis, former deputy chief of Italy's civil protection department
  • Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission
  • Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics
  • Giulio Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre
  • Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering
  • Claudio Eva, physicist
  • Mauro Dolce, director of the the Civil Protection Agency's earthquake risk office
  • Bernardo De Bernardinis (pictured), former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency's technical department

Some scientists have warned that the case might set a damaging precedent, deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits, the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome reports.

Among those convicted were some of Italy's most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts.

Earlier, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group in the dock.

After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK's Open University, said earthquakes were "inherently unpredictable".

"The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game," he said.

Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK's Royal Berkshire Hospital said that the sentence was surprising and could set a worrying precedent.

"If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1002.

    A shocking and incomprehensible verdict. The judiciary plainly has no insight at all into seismology, which the best brains in the world are still struggling to unravel. They certainly have no understanding as to how science works. These distinguished men acted in good faith and made their best guess with the limited understanding available to them. This prosecution is an outrage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1001.

    If the scientists stated, prior to the quake, that there was even the slightest chance of a major event then they should be released immediately and profusely apologised to. If they catagorically stated that there was zero possibility then the sentence should stand...just for sheer stupidity, never mind the quake!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1000.

    984. mythsbuster
    (I know it was just a spelling mistake, but it was funny)

    When the planet farts, the technical term is:

  • rate this

    Comment number 999.

    If you design something, it saves millions of lives, can you sue all those people to pay you a portion of the lives they'll live? If one person dies in a million, you can be sued for manslaughter? I guess a prediction will always be that.. a prediction. I guess the anti-renaissance had to start sometime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 998.

    On Health & Safety issues, "2% possibility to have that destructive quake" is not small. Why we concern on BSE, SARS and H5N1 virus? Why we don't want to send our soldiers to Afghanistan? The death rates are so far below 2%, but not "no danger"! The scientists involved should simply announce their findings, rather than cover their data up, and officially announced "improbable" to have that quake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 997.

    That they were prosecuted at all is appalling enough, but the verdict + sentences defy belief. Seismology must be one of the most unpredictable of all sciences, with warnings not much better than a best guess. No one in their right mind would put their head above the parapet for a living after this; a judgement more akin to the treatment of 15th century alchemists than modern justice. Shameful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 996.

    BBC is doing disinformation with this article: there's no mention of what happened behind the scene, context and wire tapped phone calls of Bertolaso who decided what the scientists where supposed to say because as he literally said they were just a media event, this and more can be found in Italian on La Repubblica homepage. Really surprising, as finding everybody is an offended scientist here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 995.

    This is absolutely stupid. The idea of science in these situations is to give predictions. Its hardly every a yes or no answer.

    On the information they give, its up to politicians and authorities to make a judgement call.

    Sounds like them authorities are looking for scape goats to divert attention from themselves, pointing fingers

    Its a natural disaster, its not anyone's fault

  • rate this

    Comment number 994.

    As for these poor sods being prosecuted at all is a sick joke. It shows an incredibly retarded attitude in the people who opted to pick on an undefended scapegoat... no doubt some religious fruitbat will already have claimed it was the will of God to punish evildoers - so sign up Billy Connolly to sue God again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 993.

    What a ludicrous decision, if they predicted an earthquake and nothing happened would they then have been liable for the all the unnecessary evacuations and preparations? Perhaps I can sue the Met Office every time I get wet and they predict it will be dry. Forecasting future events is not an exact science, if you put an onus on the scientists to get it spot on who's going to want the job?

  • rate this

    Comment number 992.

    983. Alan Kenny.
    Various UK universities conduct world class earthquake research. Everyone who knows anything about seismology knows that we don't know enough to KNOW what is happening at any given moment. Their opinions were sought, which they gave based on probabilities.
    The were not actually employed to predict anything.
    They were employed to conduct research into seismic activity..

  • rate this

    Comment number 991.

    The final paragraph says it all. What are we saying to our scientists? 'By all means do your valuable work and we will benefit from and enjoy the fruits of your efforts. BUT, should you get it wrong we'll ruin you'. If we are unable to accept that risk exists and we go straight for the virtual jugular every time someone gets something wrong then we deserve our, unavoidably, depressing future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 990.

    Similar to burning Witches in days of old.
    Only that many Italians STILL believe in them.
    This is voodoo justice in the European Union 2012

  • rate this

    Comment number 989.

    Weren't there two post herein stating scientists lie; Yes, Scientists are people and some people lie. You both miss the entire point of the Scientific Method in today s world. The entire rest of the scientific world is looking at your work and WILL make their "name" refuting you bad science. Your peers grind your work until all is known. The Scientific Method works, the rest is just humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 988.

    @970. JamesE
    I have never read so much rubbish!
    DNA hasn't cured anything yet.
    GMOs are poisoning the planet and robbing farmers blind in the name of Monsanto and Dow shareholders.
    Synthetic additives in food are not bio-available to the human body - they just make it cheaper for food manufacturers to claim that their processed junk is healthy!
    There is almost nothing ethical in food production!

  • rate this

    Comment number 987.

    I feel this could set a very dangerous situation. Living in an earthquake prone area, it makes me wonder just how future seismic activity will be treated by the scientific community. Either 'no comment' or 'take to the hills' would benefit no one. We all know that 'quakes can occur without warning, so these guys deserve no more than a slapped wrist for being too confident all was well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 986.

    And people think some of our judges decisions are out of touch with reality.

    Who next?
    - the weatherman - because the sun comes out unexpectedly and people get sunburnt?
    - the traffic reporter because a delay is longer than predicted
    - and every horoscope provider!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 985.

    @944 max - Thank you for trying to make the facts clear. I've been trying for two hours. Unfortunately, there are very few people here who are intelligent enough to read them properly. It is like swimming against the tide. If I were you I would give up and go do something more productive. These people are just depressingly stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 984.

    Scientist community today gives false impressions that they are certain of something while actually not, which leads to false public perception of what scientists said. They should be held of responsibility for the misleading the public about the earthquack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 983.

    If scientists accept official, highly paid posts in government or accademia to predict what they cannot predict, then it would be best for them not to be employed and not to be paid to offer predictions that they cannot predict. .


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