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Italian seismologists appeal L’Aquila ruling

Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo.

Seven scientists, engineers and government officials who were found guilty of manslaughter after the 2009 earthquake in the city of L’Aquila, Italy, all filed their appeals against the verdict in time for a 6 March deadline.

The appeal trials will again take place in L’Aquila, but the court will consist of three judges instead of one as in the first-degree trial. The sentences — which include a six-year prison term and a permanent ban from civil service — will not become effective in the meantime.

On 31 March 2009, the convicted scientists participated in a meeting of an expert panel on seismic risk held in L’Aquila, where earthquakes of low and medium intensity had been occurring for four months.

According to the prosecutors, the experts underestimated the risk that a major shock might be on its way, and some of them made exceedingly reassuring statements to the press, implying that a strong earthquake would surely not happen.

As a result, the prosecutors argued, on 6 April 2009, when a magnitude-6.3 quake occurred, 29 people who would otherwise have fled their homes during a tremor decided to stay inside and were killed when the houses collapsed.

On 22 October 2012, judge Marco Billi found the seven guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them all to prison terms of six years.

Billi explained his decision in an 800-page document made public on 18 January. He wrote that the defendants had conducted a “superficial, approximate and generic” risk analysis. Although they could not predict the earthquake, he wrote, they should have highlighted more clearly the probability of a strong shock and its possible effects, because they knew about the frailty of many buildings in the area.

Billi also wrote that they are all responsible for the reassurances that eventually reached the public, because no one contradicted the statements made to the press by some panel members.

In their appeal requests, the attorneys for the seven scientists ask for the verdict to be overturned and all charges to be dropped.

In response to Billi’s document they note that the statements made during the meeting were all scientifically accurate, and that informing the population was the responsibility of political authorities, not the panel members.

The lawyer of Giulio Selvaggi, former director of the National Earthquake Center at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, and others also criticize Billi’s use of scientific evidence.

His appeal request says that the judge used “brief parts of scientific papers or single tables […] to draw general conclusions”, and that “many scientific statements made in the verdict are not supported by the vast literature available”. For example, the lawyer questions the idea that strong earthquakes in L’Aquila have always been preceded by minor shocks.

Mostly, the appeals rebut the causal link at the heart of the sentence: that the 31 March meeting was the only reason the 29 victims were sleeping in their homes on the night of the earthquake, and that they surely would have been elsewhere had they not heard reassuring information from the panel.

According to the defendants, this link cannot be proven. “The sentence is self-contradictory and illogical,” Selvaggi told Nature. “The appeal is really about logic and cause-and-effect relationships, not about legal quibbles.”


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