Six scientists have been sentenced for failing to warn L'Aquila residents of the devastating 2009 earthquake. But are they simply scapegoats? Should science be put on trial for the failure to predict a natural disaster?
The L'Aquila earthquake struck on April 6, 2009, with a magnitude of 6.3. The quake, which killed 309 people and devastated the small medieval town, was the biggest in a series of tremors that had been shaking the mountainous region of Abruzzo in central Italy for months.
An earlier earthquake, magnitude four, at the end of March 2009, brought the members of the Major Risks committee together to assess the risk to residents of the region, and whether or not a mass evacuation needed to be undertaken.
Six members of that committee, all eminent scientists and seismologists, as well as an ex-government official, Bernardo De Bernadinis, were put on trial in an attempt to determine who was responsible for the deaths and destruction caused by the earthquake.
On Monday, a little over a year after the trial began, presiding judge Marco Billi took just over four hours to deliver a sentence condemning the seven men to six years in prison, the interdiction to hold any future public office and the payment of extensive damages to the victims of the earthquake and their families.
The seven were found guilty of multiple manslaughter, after having been accused of giving "falsely reassuring messages" to the population prior to the quake in April. Witnesses in the trial claimed that their relatives chose not to leave their houses before the quake struck because they were reassured by the committee that a bigger quake was unlikely, although not impossible.
One of the scientists, Enzo Boschi, a seismologist and formerly director of the Italian National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology, said that he was still "confused as to what exactly he'd been condemned of"; speaking to the Italian national newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, he added that he "has always maintained that earthquakes are impossible to predict," and that seismologists were targeted because they were "the weakest link in the chain of command."
Boschi challenged "anyone to find a written or oral statement where I reassured people ahead of the earthquake, because I didn't." Another of the accused, Bernardo De Bernadinis, stated he was "innocent before God and his fellow man," but would accept the final verdict of Italian justice, if it still found him guilty.
The scientific community reacted with dismay to the fact that scientists should be put on trial in this manner and held responsible for a disaster that experts agree is impossible to predict.
Five-thousand international scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, in June 2010 ahead of the trial, stating the following: "It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning. Moreover, we worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers …"
Italian politicians also criticized the sentence. Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the centrist UDC party, was quoted in Corriere della Sera as saying: "This sentence spells the end of state justice; it is pure madness." The right wing leader of the Italian upper house, Renato Schifani, also told Corriere that "this is a strange and rather embarrassing sentence. Whoever might be appointed to these kinds of [advisory] roles will no doubt think twice before accepting them in the future."
In fact, Luciano Maiani, head of the Major Risks committee, who was only appointed in January, has resigned in protest at the sentence. He said that it was essentially impossible to do his job in this climate. Two of his colleagues are also reported to have resigned alongside him.
Monday's sentence entitles victims and their families to substantial damages, in some cases up to hundreds of thousands of euros. However, this is just the first stage in the Italian legal process, which, once appealed, will have to go through two higher courts before a final judgment is reached. The process can often lead to the revocation or reduction of the initial judgment. None of the seven are expected to start prison sentences immediately, and their lawyers are currently preparing their appeals.