In 2009, an earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, killed 309 people. Yesterday, seven experts – four scientists, two engineers, and one ex-government official -- tasked with giving advice ahead of time were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison.
The victims’ families believe the verdict is justice for false reassurances. "It wasn't a trial against science,” says Vincenzo Vittorini, who lost his wife and daughter. “It was a trial against those who didn't know how to evaluate the risk, who didn't know to mitigate the risk.”
But much of the scientific community is worried that the verdict would prompt scientists to err on the side of exaggerating risk and over-alarming the public.
"We know that the system for communicating risk before the L'Aquila earthquake was flawed, but this verdict will cast a pall over any attempt to improve it,” says Thomas Jordan of USC. “I'm afraid that many scientists are learning to keep their mouths shut. This won't help those of us who are trying to improve risk communication between scientists and the public."
All seven convicted attended a meeting of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks held in L'Aquila on 31 March 2009 -- because many smaller tremors had hit the city in the previous few months. That was six days before the magnitude 6.3 quake struck.
In his closing arguments on 24 September, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti underlined that the men were not being charged with having failed to predict the exact time, place, and magnitude of the deadly quake, information that he said modern science was not able to provide. Instead, he told the court, the defendants made a series of "banal and self-contradictory" statements during their 2009 meeting, many of which were "at best scientifically useless" or, worse, "misleading."
In particular, comments from one defendant suggested that danger decreased with each tremor. And such information led to many people staying indoors on the night of 5 to 6 April 2009, rather than seeking safety outside – what they were trained to do growing up. That change in behavior, charged the prosecution, caused the deaths of 30 of the victims.
Picuti reasoned that their “inadequate” risk assessment led to scientifically incorrect messages being given to the public. He argued that the defense failed to distinguish between a natural disaster and the risk of such a disaster: while an earthquake is impossible to predict, he said, its risk can be predicted.
In their final arguments on Monday morning, the defendants' lawyers remarked that the prosecutors had not managed to prove a clear causal link between what happened at the meeting and the deaths. “The minutes of the meeting were not made public before the earthquake. There was no press release, no official statement. So how could those deaths be caused by what scientists said at the meeting?” asked Marcello Melandri [one of the defendant’s advocate]. They also noted that the accusation mostly relies on relatives' recollections of the victims' decisions at the time of the earthquake, which can be unreliable.
The verdict has drawn criticism from groups such as the American Geophysical Union and the American Association For the Advancement of Science, and the defendants’ lawyers will all appeal the verdict.
Melandri adds: “In Italy you will now see many more false alarms in such situations, because experts will choose to cry wolf when in doubt. In the end they will become less and less credible.”