An appeals court in Italy has overturned the 2012 manslaughter conviction handed down to seven prominent scientists and engineers following a devastating earthquake in 2009. The decision came as a surprise—and a relief—to many of the accused’s colleagues, who worried that pressure from the community, victims’ families, and local press would compel the court to agree with the earlier decision.
The original conviction found the seven men guilty of manslaughter after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 309 people in the Italian mountain town of L’Aquila. They each received a six-year sentence, two more than the prosecutor had requested, for not properly assessing the seismic risk and informing the public.
The decision was based on what the scientists said, and didn’t say, in the days leading up to the earthquake. For much of the winter and early spring of 2009, L’Aquila was shaking. A phenomenon known as a seismic swarm was delivering thousands of small earthquakes to the region, many of them significant enough to send glasses crashing to kitchen floors. On March 31, the head of the country’s Civil Protection Department (essentially Italy’s FEMA) asked a group of experts to convene a meeting in L’Aquila to assess the situation and speak to local officials about the risk at hand.
Some of the men were part of a group known as the Serious Risks Commission, a group of distinguished scientists that advises the government on matters such as earthquakes, floods, and nuclear hazards. Although the commission usually met behind closed doors, the L’Aquila meeting was also attended by local officials. Both before and after the meeting, some of the scientists spoke to the media, which was also atypical.
Six days later, a major earthquake destroyed much of the city and killed 309 people. Three years later, each of the men received a six-year sentence for manslaughter, in what critics deemed one of the biggest science-on-trial cases in ages.
Today, after a surprisingly swift-by-Italian-standards appeals process, the three-judge panel acquitted six of the men. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, received a two-year sentence for causing the death of some, but not all, of the 29 victims involved in the trial.
Much of the case, and subsequent appeal, hinged on an especially moronic statement made by De Bernardinis on the day of the now infamous meeting in L’Aquila preceding the quake. At the time, he was the number two official at the Civil Protection Department. In a television interview, De Bernardinis—whose training is in hydrology, not seismology—was asked if the swarm was a sign of worse to come.
“On the contrary,” he said. “The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy.”
As a stand-alone comment, it does sound reassuring, but almost all seismologists would say this is rubbish. Worse, the brief clip from that interview was aired after the experts met on the afternoon of March 31, leaving the false impression that it was a summary of their opinions, not a rogue misstatement from an official who should have known better.
But to go from this to causing the deaths of dozens of people was too much of a stretch for the appeals court. For the people of L’Aquila, there is little solace in this decision: Their city is still in shambles and so many loved ones are gone. But for science, and anyone who thinks scientists should be free to advise on matters of public policy and safety without fear of legal repercussions, today is a good day.
Credits: TheWiz83 – Wikimedia Commmons