Italian appeal court clears seismologists of manslaughter

Written by Richard Chirgwin,

The pain remains, but at least not the crime. In a case watched by scientists around the world, six Italian seismologists who had been found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake have had their convictions overturned by an appeals court. Released seismologists

They had been sentenced to six years in jail and a fine of €9 million for underestimating the risks ahead of an earthquake which struck the town in 2009. The town of L’Aquila, in the mountains of Abruzza, was devastated by the quake, which left 309 people dead.

The seismologists were members of a Major Risks Committee which met on March 31 of 2009, six days before a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, and the prosecution had accused them of underestimating the risk that several earlier tremors (a seismic storm) were the lead-up to a major ‘quake.

The Civil Protection Agency had based the prosecution on the contention that their assessment meant people stayed in L’Aquila who otherwise would have left.

Nature, which had earlier called the conviction “perverse” because it would chill scientists’ willingness to give honest opinions, reports the acquittal here. It says the appeals court decided that the seismologists and one other government official had ended up in front of court as the consequence of “botched communications in a highly stressed environment”.

The government official convicted with the scientists, Bernardo de Bernardinis, had his sentence cut to two years. De Bernardinis was formerly deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department.

Nature quotes one of the six, former director of Italy’s National Earthquake Centre Guilio Selvaggi, as saying “there is nothing to celebrate, because the pain of the people of L’Aquila remains”.

Nor is the battle over, since lawyers for the families of the deceased announced their intention to challenge the decision in Rome’s Supreme Court of Cassation. That court could invalidate the findings and order new appeals proceedings, Nature says.

Along with Selvaggi and de Bernardinis, the scientists convicted in the case were Franco Barberi, Enzo Boshci, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Glan Michele Calvi. ®