Italy’s supreme court clears L’Aquila earthquake scientists for good by Edwin Cartlidge, Nov. 20, 2015 , Science
Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for advice they gave ahead of the deadly L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 today were definitively acquitted by Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome following lengthy deliberations by a panel of five judges. But the court upheld the conviction of a public official tried alongside them.
The ruling marks the end of a 5-year legal process that has proven immensely controversial in the scientific world and beyond. In 2010 the seven were placed under investigation for allegedly giving false and fatal reassurances to the people of L’Aquila a few days ahead of the earthquake, which struck on 6 April 2009, killing 309. The seven were put on trial a year later and in 2012 were each handed 6-year jail sentences. At an appeal last year, however, six of them—three seismologists, a volcanologist, and two seismic engineers—were acquitted. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who at the time of the quake was deputy head of Italy’s civil protection department, remained convicted but with a reduced jail term of 2 years.
The hearing at the Court of Cassation, which started yesterday, took place after appeals prosecutor Romolo Como asked that the convictions be reinstated. Although that possibility appeared remote, the five-judge panel, headed by Fausto Izzo, remained closed in their chamber for 10 hours before confirming the lower court’s decision.
Following the verdict, Alessandra Stefano, who represented University of Pavia seismic engineer Gian Michele Calvi, said that “justice has finally been done.” The convictions, she maintained, had “cried vendetta.”
One of the other scientists to be acquitted, the then-president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology Enzo Boschi, told ScienceInsider that he was “very tired” but “very relieved.” He and another of the six experts put on trial, Giulio Selvaggi, he said, had their “consciences in place.”
The victims’ relatives had a different view. Maurizio Cora, whose wife and two daughters were killed, argues that all seven of those tried are guilty. “If they had said there was a risk they would have done their job,” he said. “But they didn’t have the balls to say that.”
The seven scientists took part in a meeting of an official advisory committee in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, called to analyze the danger posed by an ongoing series of small- and medium-sized tremors that had shaken the town for several months. The judge in the original trial, Marco Billi, concluded that the experts carried out a “superficial, approximate and generic” risk analysis that persuaded townsfolk that they would be safe indoors on the night of the earthquake, with fatal results. The scientists, he said, were guilty not of failing to predict the quake, but of failing to discharge their duties under the law.
That reasoning was described by Fabrizia Francabandera and two other judges in L’Aquila’s appeals court as “uncertain and fallacious.” Instead, said Francabandera and her colleagues, Billi should have scrutinized the scientific content of the commission members’ analysis. The experts, they ruled, could not be faulted for saying there was no reason to think that the risk of a major earthquake had increased following the earlier tremors. (Many other seismologists, however, say that the risk actually can rise after such tremors.)
Prosecutor Como in turn criticized the appeals judgment. In asking the Court of Cassation to review the verdict, he said that the appellate judges should have held the scientists to account for failing to object to the idea of an energy discharge. At the original trial, many witnesses described how their loved ones had been persuaded to stay indoors after De Bernardinis told a journalist, during a now infamous interview ahead of the commission’s meeting, that the ongoing tremors were favorable because they discharged energy and therefore made a larger quake less likely.
Most scientists reject the discharge idea, and Como pointed out that when the experts were asked what they thought of it during the meeting, they said nothing. “Why on 31 March did no one dissent, no one jump up out of their seat, no one explain to the other people present of the scientific consensus that that was nonsense and not a positive signal?” he demanded.
However, Cassation prosecutor Giuseppina Fodaroni, whose role was to analyze the legal validity of the appeals court’s judgment, took a very different view. Only De Bernardinis was guilty of having reassured the public, she said, having made his reassuring comments before the committee’s meeting. What’s more, she claimed, the message from the other experts during the meeting—that the chance of a major quake had neither increased nor decreased—was “neutral” and therefore not reassuring.
That message, she argued, should have caused De Bernardinis to be more cautious in statements he made after the meeting, among them that no larger tremors were expected to occur. She argued, successfully, that his conviction should be upheld.
As judgment was being passed in Rome today, a parallel manslaughter trial against Guido Bertolaso, head of the civil protection department in 2009, was postponed until 4 March. That trial centers on a phone call Bertolaso made to a local official in setting up the commission’s meeting, in which he said he was sending the experts to L’Aquila on a “media operation” to reassure the public and “shut up” a technician in the nearby Gran Sasso nuclear physics laboratory who had allegedly made a series of alarming predictions of imminent strong earthquakes. [Emphasis added]
Faulty Justice: Italian Earthquake Scientist Speaks Out against His Conviction, Geophysicist Enzo Boschi slams the poor communication that could put him behind bars for six years by Larry Greenemeier, September 26, 2013, Scientific American
The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication
A year ago an Italian court sentenced six scientists and an ex-government official to six years in prison for manslaughter. More specifically, the judge found them guilty for failing to give adequate advance warning to the population of L’Aquila, a city in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about the risk of the April 2009 earthquake that caused 309 deaths. As they await word of their appeal, the scientists maintain that the true culprit in that disaster was the government’s inability to communicate nuanced scientific information to L’Aquila’s citizens.
Much of the prosecution’s case hinged on a meeting of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks in L’Aquila one week prior to the earthquake. That confab, run by the Italian government, featured a committee of scientists who discussed the difficulty of predicting seismic activity but also pointed out that Abruzzo—L’Aquila in particular—sits on one of the worst earthquake zones in the country. Following the meeting, the government downplayed the risk of an earthquake, giving residents a false sense of security that discouraged them from fleeing to safety once the magnitude 6.3 quake had begun, according to prosecutors.
One of the convicted scientists continues to defend his position that the charges against him and his colleagues were “illogical” and warns that they set “dangerous precedents for the future of the scientific process.” In a letter to be published Friday in Science, Enzo Boschi, former president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, also noted that the meeting’s discourse prompted the city’s mayor to close certain schools and recommend a state of emergency be declared—moves that may have saved some lives. He says the court later ignored the mayor’s testimony.
Perhaps more troubling, the prosecution also misrepresented a 1995 study by Boschi and others in which they noted that a handful of powerful earthquakes recorded in Abruzzo in the 17th and 18th centuries did not prove that the risk of future temblors in that area was high. Boschi argues that the prosecutor “completely distorted” that study’s purpose and conclusions. “The public prosecutor’s superficial interpretation of scientific results to bolster his argument sets a grave precedent for not only seismology but many other disciplines as well.” The 1995 study was not meant to be the final word on Abruzzo’s vulnerability to strong earthquakes but rather a present a point for further scientific discourse.
Boschi’s letter is a powerful defense against the unjustified conviction of scientists in the L’Aquila case, says Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California, where the center is headquartered. The problems in communicating seismic risks prior to the L’Aquila earthquake resulted from a poorly constructed and badly misused risk-advisory system run by the government, not the fault of actions or statements by the scientists themselves, he adds.
Instead, the scientists found their views and actions lumped in with those of Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice director of the government’s Department of Civil Protection, who at a prequake press conference to discuss the commission’s meeting reportedly downplayed the danger of an imminent earthquake. When a reporter asked whether residents should then relax with a glass of wine, he is quoted as saying, “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano,” referring to a type of red wine. De Bernardinis’s lawyers claim he was making a joke, but prosecutors seized on this statement nonetheless.
“This comment was irresponsible and, as far as I know, it did not represent the views of the rest of the committee, including Dr. Boschi, or of our ability to forecast earthquakes,” says Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “The earthquakes at L’Aquila were part of an earthquake swarm, and science does not permit us to predict whether the swarm will include a large damaging earthquake mid-swarm or will simply taper off without damage.”
The L’Aquila prosecution has been the “trial of the century from a seismological point of view or more generally from the perspective of the scientists involved in public policy and, in particular, risk-communication issues,” says Jordan, who chaired the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection formed by the Italian government in the aftermath of the L’Aquila event to assess the scientific knowledge of earthquake predictability and provide guidelines for effectively gathering, updating and disseminating information to the public.
Scientists should be asked to provide the appropriate advice on the scientific issues, but communicating a course of action based on that advice must be done by people who can take into account political, economic and other factors that weigh on those actions, Jordan says. “It comes back to what is the appropriate role for scientists—and the appropriate role is not making risk-management decisions but rather giving advice,” he adds. “If that is done properly I don’t see liability associated with that.” [Emphasis added]
Italy judge says deadly L’Aquila quake was foreseeable by Agence France-Presse, May 16, 2013, spacedaily
A deadly earthquake in the Italian town of L’Aquila in 2009 which killed 309 people “was not unforeseeable”, a judge said Thursday, reigniting a heated scientific debate over whether experts should have warned the population beforehand. “It was an earthquake which was by no means exceptional for L’Aquila and absolutely in line with the area’s seismic history,” Judge Giuseppe Grieco said in a legal summary released three months after a trial into the collapse of a student residence that killed eight people.
Three Italian builders were found guilty in February of multiple manslaughter after carrying out restoration work on the student housing that was found to have weakened it further. Also, a technician was sentenced to jail for having declared the building safe shortly before the quake.
Grieco said that strong earthquakes in the area were known to have taken place “around every 325 years from the year 1000,” and therefore “it was not unforeseeable.”
In October last year, six Italian scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in jail for underestimating the risks of the killer quake and failing to alert the population. The sentence has been suspended as the seven appeal the verdict. All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee which met in L’Aquila on March 31, 2009 — six days before the quake devastated the region, leaving thousands of people homeless. It met after a series of small tremors in the preceding weeks had sown panic among local inhabitants but gave press interviews saying the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger”.
Survivors said many locals had been falsely reassured and stayed indoors when the first tremors hit, sharply raising the number of causalities.
Italian Scientists Appeal Earthquake Manslaughter Verdict by LiveScience, March 07, 2013
The six scientists and one government official convicted of manslaughter over statements they made before a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 in the town of L’Aquila, Italy, have filed appeals against the verdict. All seven met the March 6 deadline for filing, according to a Nature News blog. Judge Marco Billi sentenced the seismologists and official to six years in prison on Oct. 22, 2012, after a yearlong trial. Three judges are expected to oversee the appeals trials, and in the meantime the prison sentences will remain on hold, Nature News reports.
The prosecutors contended that at a March 31 meeting in L’Aquila the defendants had downplayed the risks of a large earthquake after a series of tremors shook the Italian city in early 2009. On April 6, 2009, a magnitude-6.3 quake hit, and 29 people who would have fled their homes stayed put, only to be killed when the buildings collapsed. [See Photos of L’Aquila Earthquake Destruction]
At the controversial meeting, one of the defendants, earth scientist Enzo Boschi noted the uncertainty, saying a large earthquake was “unlikely,” but saying that the possibility could not be excluded. However, a press conference that followed saw another telling citizens there was “no danger.”
The defendants’ attorneys, in their appeals, are asking for the verdict to be overturned and all charges dropped, Nature News reports. They are arguing that all of the statements made during the March 31 meeting were scientifically accurate, and that political authorities, not this panel, should have the responsibility of informing the public of the risk. [Emphasis added]
Judge in L’Aquila Earthquake Trial Explains His Verdict by Edwin Cartlidge, January 21, 2013, NewsScienceMag.org
ROME—The L’Aquila judge who last October sentenced seven scientists and engineers to 6 years in prison each for advice they gave ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake explained his reasons for the manslaughter convictions on Friday. He said that the seven, at the time members of an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had analysed the risk of a major quake in a “superficial, approximate and generic” way and that they were willing participants in a “media operation” to reassure the public. [What does that say about industry, regulators, scientists and politicians lying to the public and affected citizens about hydraulic fracturing, and ignoring or minimizing the risks, harms and liabilities? And worse, refusing complete, honest chemical disclosure before drilling, perforating, acidizing, fracing and servicing so that affected citizens can obtain accurate, appropriate baseline water well, health and air testing]
The seven were brought to trial in September 2011 for advice they gave in a meeting on 31 March 2009, 6 days before the earthquake, and a day after the latest, and strongest, in an ongoing series of tremors, known as a swarm, to strike the area around L’Aquila. They were accused by the public prosecutor of having caused some of the town’s residents to change their behaviour and led them to stay indoors on the night of the quake instead of seeking shelter outside, as they were used to doing when tremors happened.
Following his conviction of the seven commission members on 22 October, Judge Marco Billi had 90 days to make public his reasoning, and in the event did so with just 3 days to spare. The 950-page document Billi released, known as the “motivazione,” shows him to have largely accepted the prosecutors’ argument. He explains that the trial was not against science but against seven individuals who failed to carry out their duty as laid down by the law. The scientists were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake, something Billi says was impossible to do, but for their complete failure to properly analyze, and to explain, the threat posed by the swarm. Billi ruled that this failure led to the deaths of 29 of the 309 people killed in the quake and to the injuries of four others. “The deficient risk analysis was not limited to the omission of a single factor,” he writes, “but to the underestimation of many risk indicators and the correlations between those indicators.”
Billi supports the prosecutors’ contention that the commission members had made contradictory and historically inaccurate statements regarding the possibility of earthquake precursors, that they had mischaracterized the swarm in L’Aquila, and that they had given the townsfolk the false impression that there was nothing to fear by describing the swarm as “normal” and by incorrectly stating that the swarm discharged energy.
He also says that the commission members failed to discuss a number of specific and relevant studies that they had access to, such as a 1995 paper co-authored by commission member Enzo Boschi, a geophysicist at the University of Bologna, which predicted L’Aquila was certain to be struck by a major earthquake by 2015. Failure to consider these studies, he writes, “is equivalent to the death of knowledge.”
Prosecutors in the case had requested 4-year prison sentences. In going beyond that term, Billi says that “the guilt of the defendants is certainly severe” and adds that their guilt is accentuated by what he describes as the “conscious and uncritical adherence to the will of the head of the civil protection department,” Guido Bertolaso, to carry out what Bertolaso had called a “media operation,” which meant that the experts spoke directly with the public rather than via the civil protection department. Billi says that each of the seven commission members played an important role in the meeting and that they worked together as a collective unit.
The convicted experts will remain free until after their appeal, which their lawyers must lodge within 45 days from the release of Billi’s statement. With two or even three stages, the appeals process could last up to 6 years.
Italian scientists resign over L’Aquila quake verdicts by Jethro Mullen, with contributions by Hada Messia, October 23, 2012, CNN
Prosecutors argued scientists gave residents “incomplete and contradictory” information
(CNN) — Earthquake experts worldwide expressed shock at the manslaughter convictions of six Italian scientists who failed to predict the deadly L’Aquila quake, warning that the decision could severely harm future research. Two scientists resigned their posts with the government’s disaster preparedness agency Tuesday after a court in L’Aquila sentenced six scientists and a government official to six years in prison. The court ruled Monday that the scientists failed to accurately communicate the risk of the 2009 quake, which killed more than 300 people. [What will courts rule in the future on regulators, lobby groups like CAPP and CSUR (previously CSUG), and companies lying about the risks and harms directly caused by hydraulic fracturing?]
Luciano Maiani, the physicist who led the National Commission for the Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, resigned in protest of the verdict Tuesday afternoon, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency announced. “The situation created by the sentencing yesterday on the facts from L’Aquila is incompatible with a clear and effective performance of the functions of the commission and its role as a consulting bodies for the state,” Maiani said in a statement released by the agency.
In addition, Mauro Dolce quit as director of the office that monitors volcano and earthquake threats, the agency said. Dolce will be given another post, it said.
Seismologists were aghast at the court’s decision, noting that earthquakes remain impossible to forecast with any kind of accuracy. “To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes and to advise the local population to flee” would constitute “both bad science and bad public policy,” said David Oglesby, an associate professor in the Earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside. “If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don’t pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future,” Oglesby said in a statement.
Prosecutors argued that the scientists gave “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers” facing L’Aquila at a meeting a week before the magnitude-6.3 quake. The experts determined that it was “unlikely” but not impossible that a major quake would take place, despite concern among the city’s residents over recent seismic activity.
The court agreed, finding the six scientists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and a member of the Civil Protection Agency guilty and ordering Italian authorities to pay 7.8 million euros ($10 million) in damages.
“It’s chilling that people can be jailed for giving a scientific opinion in the line of their work,” Roger Musson, the head of seismic hazard and archives at the British Geological Survey, wrote in a comment published on the organization’s Twitter feed. …
Boschi and the six others convicted Monday will remain free during the appeal process.
The Italian geophysics institute expressed “regret and concern” about the verdict in a statement Monday. It said the ruling “threatens to undermine one of the cornerstones of scientific research: that of freedom of investigation, of open and transparent discussion and sharing of results.”
Some experts have argued that the issue was a failure of communications, not calculations. Domenico Giardini, who held Boschi’s old job at the institute for several months, said last year that the trial was about “the number of weak points in the communication chain.” [So, when will industry, politicians and regulators stop lying to the public, saying hydraulic fracturing is not only perfectly safe, but is good for the environment]
“We all have to work on new, and more clear, protocols, on the transfer of information,” said Giardini, who now conducts research in Switzerland. …
The ruling may well change the way experts disclose their opinions, according to David Spiegelhalter, a professor specializing in the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University in Britain.
“L’Aquila trial shows public scientists need to take media communication very seriously,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “And get indemnity.” [Emphasis added]
ITALIAN COURT CONVICTS 7 SCIENTISTS FOR FAILING TO PREDICT EARTHQUAKE THAT KILLED 308 PEOPLE by PatDollard.com, Oct 22, 2012
L’AQUILA, Italy – Defying assertions that earthquakes cannot be predicted, an Italian court convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter Monday for failing to adequately warn residents before a temblor struck central Italy in 2009 and killed more than 300 people.
The court in L’Aquila Monday evening handed down six-year-prison sentences to the defendants, members of a national “Great Risks Commission.” In Italy, convictions aren’t definitive until after an appeals trial, so it is unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.
The trial — described in 2011 by a USGS scientist as “a witch hunt” — sent shock waves of its own through the international science community. “It’s a sad day for science,” said seismologist Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. `’It’s unsettling.”
Tom Jordan, a seismologist with the University of Southern California (USC), chaired an international committee on earthquake forecasting convened in Italy following the 2009 quake. He agreed that scientists worldwide were rattled. “It’s widely viewed within the scientific community that this is an unfair result,” Jordan told FoxNews.com. “We can’t predict earthquakes. We can only forecast them with low probability.” [But we can stop hydraulic fracturing, fluid injection for enhanced recovery, and waste injection]
Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts, including Enzo Boschi, former head of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. “I am dejected, desperate,” Boschi said after the verdict. “I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”
“I consider myself innocent before God and men,” said another convicted defendant, Bernardo De Bernardinis, a former official of the national Civil Protection agency. The trial began in September 2011 in this Apennine town, whose devastated historic center is still largely a ghost town.
The defendants were accused in the indictment of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether small tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.
The 6.3-magnitude quake killed 308 people in and around the medieval town and forced survivors to live in tent camps for months.
Many much smaller earth tremors had rattled the area in the months before the quake, causing frightened people to wonder if they should evacuate.
Prosecutors had sought convictions and four-year sentences during the trial. They argued in court that the L’Aquila disaster was tantamount to “monumental negligence,” and cited the devastation wrought in the southern United States in 2005 when levees failed to protect the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
A defense lawyer, Filippo Dinacci, told reporters that the sentence would have “big repercussions” on public administration since officials would be afraid to “do anything.”
Relatives of some who perished in the 2009 quake said justice has been done. Ilaria Carosi, sister of one of the victims, told Italian state TV that public officials must be held responsible “for taking their job lightly.”
The world’s largest multi-disciplinary science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, condemned the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities. Earthquakes are, of course, nearly impossible to predict, seismologists say. In fact, according to the website for the USGS, no major quake has ever been predicted successfully.
“Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake,” reads a statement posted on the USGS website. “They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.”
Jordan told FoxNews.com his report called for the creation of a a system that puts out information about earthquake risk on a regular basis, something he called “operational earthquake forecasting.” Even the U.S. system is not ideal, he noted.
“The scientists get caught between a rock and a hard spot in terms of trying to answer the question, ‘will there be a big earthquake,’” he told FoxNews.com. The ruling could have a “chilling effect” on future communication efforts, he added.
The verdict also calls for damage payments that could add up to hundreds of thousands of euros, Science magazine wrote. [Emphasis added]