An Italian judge has convicted seven of the country’s leading natural disaster experts of manslaughter, saying they failed to give accurate information to the public ahead of the 2009 L’Aquilla earthquake.
The 6.3 magnitude earthquake killed more than 300 people, injured over a 1,000 and left many more homeless.
Judge Marco Billi, taking just four hours to decide the fate of the defendants, returned a verdict that went beyond even what the prosecution was asking for, sentencing the men not to four years as had been asked for by the prosecution but rather to seven years each. The judge went further still to impose lifetime bans on the experts ever holding public office, and also ordered defendants to pay those affected by the quake a total of 7.8m euros in compensation.
Italy’s justice system means the convictions are not definitive until after an appeal.
The case, brought against leading members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, saw the natural disaster experts accused of providing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information in the lead up to the 6 April, 2009, quake.
In particular, the prosecution hinged its case on a press conference in which it said one of the defendants gave assurances that, after convening an extraordinary meeting with the full commission to discuss some 400 smaller tremors that had been felt in the region during the four months before that catastrophic day, the experts thought there was no immediate risk.
The prosecution cited Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy head of the department and among those charged, saying in a TV interview ahead of the quake: “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.”
It is this optimism, the prosecution said in its arguing for multiple manslaughter charges, that meant many lives were lost as the public and officials were unprepared for the violent earthquake that followed. The prosecution called the experts’ reading of the data “flawed, inadequate, negligent and deceptive.”
The experts were also accused of failing to evaluate a number of earthquake predictors that may have suggested a severe earthquake was likely. Indeed, there were other scientists who said there was cause for thinking a major earthquake event was imminent, but their opinions were ignored.
The defendants deny giving any such assurances, saying they were asked about likelihoods and predictors and as such could only give an opinion based on what information was available to them.
The experts also deny in staunch terms that they ever gave the impression the risk of an earthquake should be ignored, saying the statement made by De Bernardinis was not scientifically correct, and that it did not reflect their belief about the possibility of a major earthquake.
The Scientific Community Left Reeling By Italy’s Earthquake Ruling
Ahead of the trail, which started in September 2011, around 5,000 international scientists signed an open letter in defense of the experts wherein they said the charges were not only unfounded, because anyone versed in even elementary seismology is aware of how limited our ability to predict earthquake activity still is, but also because by virtue of this it is not just these experts who have been put on trial but all of the scientific community.
Luciano Maiani, the incumbent president of the Major Risks Commission, is quoted by the Guardian as saying this verdict has marked “the death of the services provided to the state by professors and professionals. It is impossible to supply the state with advice in a professional and composed way under this crazy judicial and media pressure. This does not happen in any other country in the world.”
Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire Hospital, is quoted by the BBC as saying this verdict sets an alarming 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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