L’Aquila’s bizarre verdict reversed

Justice has finally been done. A few days ago, an appeals court in L’Aquila, Italy, acquitted six Italian scientists who were convicted of manslaughter and awarded a six-year jail term in October 2012 for failing to communicate to the public the risk of an earthquake striking L’Aquila. The scientists were part of the seven-member official risk commission. But the judges endorsed the conviction of Bernardo De Bernardinis, the seventh member of the commission and the then deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, who communicated the message to the public; his jail sentence was reduced from six to two years. On March 31, 2009, the seven members assessed the risk of a killer quake striking L’Aquila. The meeting was convened in the light of a small and medium-intensity earthquake swarm rocking the city and a quake “prediction” by a laboratory technician based on radon emission from the ground. During the meeting, the scientists clearly raised the possibility of a major quake rocking the city but never stated it with certainty. But Bernardinis’ message to the public was overtly reassuring and not in line with the cautious assessment by the scientists. A quake, 6.3 in magnitude, that struck the city six days later, killed more than 300 people, injured over 1,600 people and destroyed nearly 65,000 houses.

In a document on conviction reasoning, Judge Marco Billi, who had found the scientists guilty of manslaughter, had emphasised that he had not charged the scientists for failing to predict the earthquake. He had faulted them for their “complete failure to properly analyse … the threat posed by the swarm.” Worse, he had charged them for not taking into account a paper published in 1995 which stated that L’Aquila was certain to be struck by a major quake by 2015. As an editorial in Nature in October 2009 put it, the verdict was nothing but “perverse” and the “sentence ludicrous.” There is no scientific basis whatsoever for the judge’s accusations. Not all major quakes have been preceded by quake swarms and not all quake swarms have been followed by a killer quake. Similarly, the 1983 forecast by the United States Geological Survey of a quake, six in magnitude, between 1988 and 1993 in the intensively studied Parkfield in California did not happen. The real problem was with the messaging. An element of uncertainty should have definitely found a place in the message, all the more because Italy is a quake-prone country. For the same reason, the compulsion to take precautionary measures should have been a matter of routine by all. More importantly, like in Japan, all buildings should have met seismic safety standards. Punishing the scientists for not doing the impossible was nothing but bizarre.

Published in The Hindu on November 17, 2014