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Scientists found guilty for L'Aquila earthquake deaths … but why?

An Italian court has found scientists directly responsible for 29 of the 309 deaths from the 2009 earthquake. EPA/Roberto Grillo

Six Italian scientists and one governmental official were found guilty of manslaughter on Monday for underestimating the risk of a deadly 2009 earthquake.

The quake struck the medieval Italian town of L'Aquila in April 2009, killing 309 people and destroying the city’s historic centre.

The verdict – which will see the seven individuals face six years in jail and millions of euros worth of damages – has already raised much discussion in the scientific community. It may also influence the future behaviour of scientists asked to give advice on natural-hazard risks.

What is commonly misunderstood about this case is that the guilty parties were convicted neither for failing to forecast the earthquake nor for neglecting to advise evacuation of the city.

Rather, they were convicted for having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” about the dangers of the ongoing seismic activity and therefore undermining the safety of the population.

The seven convicted individuals were part of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks which was summoned to a meeting in L’Aquila on March 31 2009, the day after the main foreshock of magnitude 4.1 caused some damage to buildings. Less than a week later the deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck.

The March 31 meeting was followed by a press conference during which, according to the presiding judge Marco Billi, those representing the Commission failed to appropriately convey the level of risk to the local population. This prevented citizens from taking precautions that would otherwise have saved lives.

The meeting and press conference took place in a climate of tension and nervousness due to the increasing frequency and intensity of a swarm of earthquakes that had been affecting the area for the previous four months.

The tension was compounded by predictions of a coming quake by researcher Gioacchino Giuliani.

Many building were destroyed in L'Aquila, including the Palazzo del Governo. EPA/Schiazza

Guiliani’s predictions were based on radon gas emission measurements – a technique not trusted by the scientific community. On March 31 2009, Giuliani was reported to the police for spreading unjustified alarm, leading him to stop making public pronouncements on earthquakes.

At the trial – which lasted from September 2011 to October 2012 – it was revealed that the meeting of the Major Risks Commission was called to allay public fears that had been stirred up by Giuliani’s pronouncements in conjunction with the ongoing earthquake swarm.

In his closing speech, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti judged the analysis of the Major Risks Commission as “deficient, unsuitable, inadequate and culpably deceptive”.

“Reading the meeting transcript,” he said, “we can find a series of trivial, self-contradictory, useless and misleading statements”.

Picuti pointed out many inconsistencies in the Commission assessment. He argued that the statement of scientist Franco Barberi – who essentially said a seismic swarm is not a precursor to a large event – was in contradiction with studies and positions held by other members present at the meeting. Importantly, it seems nobody questioned Barberi’s position.

Picuti added:

In 1995 Enzo Boschi [one of the six scientists] forecast with probability 1 – therefore with absolute certainty – an earthquake with magnitude 5.9 in the following 20 years in this area.

This information was not provided at the meeting, but rather, the occurrence of strong earthquakes was defined as unlikely. Boschi said “I would rule out the possibility of big earthquakes” and nobody contested this statement. That was a reckless sentence that was belied by the facts.

Because of this statement people have died.

EPA/Christiano Chiodi

Picuti also addressed the statement made by another of the accused – government official Bernado De Bernardinis – before the meeting in which the latter had stated:

the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.

When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis famously replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

Following testimony by victims’ relatives about the different behaviour adopted after the Major Risks Commission press conference, the judge recognised a direct causal link between the conduct of the convicted and the decision of some of the victims to stay inside. Specifically, he recognised a causal link for 29 deaths and four injured people.

Among the testimonies was that of the lawyer Maurizio Cora, who lost his wife and two daughters.

On March 30 2009 – the day of the main foreshock of 4.1 magnitude – Cora made his daughter go outside, even though she had a fever of 39ºC. On the night of April 5, when the main earthquake struck, Cora and his family stayed inside because he felt reassured by the Commission that it was safe to do so.

The case raises many questions, including whether scientists should bend their advice to suit the needs of an administration. And this, in turn, raises even bigger questions that will undoubtedly be explored as the verdict inevitably moves towards an appeal.

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