Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for failing to warn citizens about an earthquake

Six Italian scientists and one government official face six-year jail terms for failing to warn citizens about the ravaging effects of the L'Aquila 6.3 magnitude quake that killed 309 people in 2009. This morning, it took Judge Marco Billi just over four hours to reach this verdict.

Not surprisingly, the trial has outraged many in the scientific community, who feel that the seismologists should not be held responsible for something that's still impossible to predict. And indeed, a guilty verdict could establish a dangerous precedent as far as scientific accountability is concerned.

The prosecution's primary complaint is not so much that the government appointed panel of seismologists failed to predict the earthquake, but that they gave a falsely reassuring statement about its potential effects. The L'Aquila region had experienced two tremors prior to the earthquake, and local officials consulted the seismologists about whether or not it was a harbinger of things to come. In his closing statement, prosecuting attorney Fabio Picuti said the defendants had provided "an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken" analysis which gave the residents of L'Aquila a false sense of security and led many to stay indoors when the first tremors hit. Science, they're arguing, did not do what was required.

Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for failing to warn citizens about an earthquakeS

The defense is claiming that science is being terribly overextended in this case, and that earthquakes are still impossible to predict, both in terms of their timing and magnitude. The seismologists' lawyer, Carlo Sica, said, "They are not guilty of anything, the earthquake's no-one's fault."

And many members of the scientific community are inclined to agree. More than 5,000 scientists recently signed an open letter to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano in support of the seismologists and geologists. The letter stated,

Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning. Moreover, we worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.

Similarly, a report commissioned by the Italian government after the L'Aquila disaster highlighted the many difficulties of predicting earthquakes, a phenomenon that is typically measured within decades — not weeks or months.

It is not known whether the defendants plan to appeal the ruling.

Sources: BBC, MSNBC.

Image: Macleans. Inset image: Reuters.