An Italian court has sentenced six Italian seismologists to six years in prison for manslaughter over the deadly 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila. The verdict has brought a year-long court case to a close.
In 2009, central Italy was rocked by a 6.3 earthquake, with the center near historical city L'Aquila. The earthquake left 65,000 people homeless, damaged as many as 11,000 buildings, and killed 309 people.
Before the earthquake, the six scientists had come together in order to assess the likelihood of a severe earthquake in the area. They had made statements that a dangerous earthquake in the area was unlikely, after ill-timed meeting on March 31, just before the April earthquake. Department of Civil Protection official Bernando de Bernardinis said in a press conference that civilians in the area were in "no danger".
Prosecutors argued that these statements downplayed the risks. In a closing statement, the attorneys quoted the testimony of Guido Fioravanti, a man who had lost his father in the earthquake. At 11 pm, shortly after the first tremor, he called his family.
"I remember the fear in her voice," Fioravanti said to the BBC. "On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they told themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed."
It took Judge Marco Billi just over four hours to make his verdict. Billi said that the scientists, all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information to the public.
The decision is already unpopular in the scientific community, since seismologists say that it is impossible to determine when an earthquake will hit, or how big it will be when it does. Erik Klemetti, an assistant professor at Dennison University and a contributor for the blog Wired, tweeted, "I hope the Italians realize how backwards they are in this L'Aquila trial and its verdict. I know [it's] not everyone, but terrible precedent."
Alan Lesner, writing on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, submitted an open letter to Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy. In it, Lesner wrote, "Years of research...have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster...[We] worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers."