Italian Scientists’ Convictions for Not Predicting Earthquake Reversed
In the early hours of April 6, 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck central Italy, with the epicenter near the medieval city of L’Aquila. The 20-second earthquake left over 300 people dead, over 1,500 injured, and over 65,000 homeless in L’Aquila and 45 surrounding towns.  
In a 2012 decision widely condemned by the international scientific community, an Italian judge ruled that six scientists and one government official had committed manslaughter by failing to inform local residents of the risks prior to the earthquake. The judge sentenced the seven defendants to six years in prison, permanently barred them from public service, and ordered them to pay court costs and damages totaling roughly $10.2 million. Last month, an appellate court overturned the six scientists’ convictions; it upheld the government official’s conviction, although it reduced his sentence to two years on “suspension,” meaning he only will serve time if he commits another crime.
Some early media reports claimed that science itself had been on trial but the initial ruling, while still disturbing to many observers, was a bit more complicated: The trial judge (Italy does not generally use juries) found that the seven defendants were criminally negligent because of their participation in a government meeting on seismic risks the week before the earthquake struck. Frequent tremors had been occurring near L’Aquila for months, and the scientists advised the government official and others that a large earthquake was possible but unlikely. Separately, the government official promulgated a message that there was “no danger” of an earthquake and he theorized the tremors even indicated “it’s a favorable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy” (a claim most seismologists dispute).
The prosecution alleged that the defendants had failed to fulfill their duty to supply residents “all the information available to the scientific community on the seismic activity of the last few weeks” before the earthquake. The trial judge agreed, finding that the defendants had directly contributed to the deaths of at least 29 specific people who had stayed in their homes as a result of the government official’s message but normally would have evacuated. The defendants appealed, and under Italian law, they were free during the appeal process.
The appellate court reversed the scientists’ convictions, and shortened the government official’s conviction. Although lessened, the official’s conviction remained because of his role in reassuring the public with claims that were contradicted by science, which included a recommendation that locals sit back and enjoy a glass of wine instead of worrying about earthquakes. While the trial judge found that the scientists had implicitly supported the official’s mistaken statements – or had not done enough to counteract them – and were therefore equally guilty, the appellate court announced that any evidence of crimes by the scientists “does not exist.”
Scientists the world over have expressed relief, and the attorney for one scientist defendant said his client could never understand why he was “put on trial for having expressed a scientific opinion.” The American Geophysical Union, an international association of geophysicists, released a statement that the “acquittal is an important step in sanctioning the role scientists play in advising governments and communicating the results of their research to the public. Scientists must be able to exchange data and information in an unfettered manner and make good-faith efforts to present the results of their research without fear of prosecution.” However, many L’Aquila residents were upset with the appellate court’s decision, shouting “Shame! Shame!” when the decision was read.
A full written opinion by the appellate court is due to be filed in February 2015.
Even after the appellate court files its full written opinion, this story may not be over. The prosecutor or the victims’ families may choose to appeal once more, to Italy’s highest court (the Court of Cassation). The prosecutor may also choose to prosecute the government official’s boss, who was recorded as referring to the seismic risk meeting as a “media move” to calm the public.
Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.