Trial opens against scientists for Italy quake

September 20, 2011 By NICOLE WINFIELD , Associated Press
Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice chief of the the technical department of Italy's civil protection agency, right, and his lawyer Alfredo Biondi wait for the start of the trial in the Aquila Court, Italy, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. De Bernardinis in one of seven scientists and other experts who went on trial on manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009. The case is being closely watched by seismologists around the world who insist it's impossible to predict earthquakes and that no major temblor has ever been foretold. (AP Photo/Raniero Pizzi)

Seven scientists and other experts went on trial on manslaughter charges Tuesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009.

The case is being closely watched by seismologists around the globe who insist it's impossible to predict earthquakes and dangerous to suggest otherwise since seismologists will be discouraged from issuing any advice at all if they fear legal retaliation.

Last year, about 5,200 international researchers signed a petition supporting their Italian colleagues and the wrote to Italy's president expressing concern about what it called an unprecedented legal attack on science.

The seven defendants are accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the six months before the April 6, 2009 quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.

Prosecutors focused on a memo issued after a March 31, 2009 meeting of the Great Risks commission which was called because of mounting concerns about the months of in the region.

According to the commission's memo - issued one week before the big quake - the experts concluded that it was "improbable" that there would be a major quake though it added that one couldn't be excluded.

Commission members also gave largely reassuring interviews to local media after the meeting which "persuaded the victims to stay at home," the indictment said.

The defendants' lawyers have insisted on their clients' innocence and stressed the impossibility of predicting quakes.

The 6.3-magnitude killed 308 people in and around the medieval town of L'Aquila, which was largely reduced to rubble. Thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.

Tuesday's hearing was largely taken up with procedural details to inscribe the dozens of plaintiffs in the civil portion of the case, which will be heard alongside the criminal case. The plaintiffs are seeking some euro50 million ($68.2 million) in damages, the ANSA news agency said.

"We are looking for justice, that's all," prosecutor Alfredo Rossini told reporters before the hearing, ANSA said.

The only one of the seven defendants in the chamber was Bernardo De Bernardinis, then-vice chief of the the technical department of Italy's civil protection agency. Another defendant, Enzo Boschi, then-head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was not present.

The judge set the next hearing for Oct. 1.

In addition to the memo issued after the Great Risks commission, prosecutors focused on interviews De Bernardinis and other members of the commission gave to local media stressing the impossibility of predicting quakes and that even six months worth of low-magnitude temblors was not unusual in the highly seismic region.

In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors' case, De Bernardinis responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine.

"Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc," he responded, referring to a high-end red. "This seems important."

The indictments sent shudders throughout the international earthquake community, which responded to a call for support by Italy's geophysics institute with 5,200 signatories of professors, , postdocs and researchers from New Zealand to Costa Rica, Japan to Martinique.

"Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes," the president of the Seismological Society of America, Rick Aster wrote President Giorgio Napolitano.

Efforts should instead focus on working to better communicate earthquake risks to the public and boosting preparedness by retrofitting old and dangerous buildings, he said.

The American Geophysical Union warned that the trial would have the effect of harming efforts to understand natural disasters.

"Risk of litigation will discourage scientists and officials from advising their government or even working in the field of seismology and seismic risk assesment," the group said in a statement.

Many of the structures that collapsed in the 2009 quake were not properly built to standards for a quake-prone area like the central Apennine region of Abruzzo. Among the buildings which cracked and crumbled was L'Aquila's hospital, just as it was struggling to treat about 1,500 injured.

Nobody inside the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, was killed or injured in the .

Manslaughter charges are not unusual in Italy for natural disasters such as quakes, but they have previously focused on violations of building codes in seismic regions.

In 2009, for example, an appeals court convicted five people in the 2002 quake-triggered collapse of a school in southern San Giuliano di Puglia that killed 27 children - including the town's entire first-grade class - and a teacher. Prosecutors had alleged that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of the school.

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5 / 5 (5) Sep 20, 2011
This is quite honestly among the most ridiculous things I've ever heard of.
3.5 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2011
After having lived in California for a greater part of my life, I find this astonishing.
It's as if the Catholic Church is attacking the ... well, who haven't the attacked in modern history?
Who brought this case to the court and where should he/she be re-assigned?
4 / 5 (4) Sep 20, 2011
Italy prosecutes scientists for failing to exercise supernatural powers. This must be the first inverse witch hunt in history.
1 / 5 (5) Sep 20, 2011
If you actually read the article it says that these scientists are not being prosecuted for their lack of knowledge, they are being prosecuted for saying publicly with confidence that after small tremors had been felt there was very low probability of a major earthquake occuring and mislead the public - advising people to stay home where they were then injured in the major quake.

If they had instead said something like "there is no way of knowing whether these small tremors we feel is indicitave of a future large quake" they would not be prosecuted.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2011
I think the main point though is that this may encourage seismologists, vulcanologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and anyone else who has an interest in studying potentially catastrophic natural events to keep their gobs shut or err seriously on the conservative side to cry wolf after each small potential precursor... In fact why not also send the experts the bill for unnecessary evacuation costs when they get it wrong the other way as well? In reality it probably should be the Italian legal system that is discredited for being seriously daft and actually thinking that siesmology is an exact science, glass of wine or no.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2011
As defence the claim should be that the minor tremors were in fact from a cause not connected the main earthquake which therefore actually happened without any warning whatsoever and could not have been predicted one way or the other. The onus will then be on the prosecution to prove that the minor tremors were a precursor to the main event. This may be very difficult to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" especially as it would require another seismologist as expert witness to put the case forward who would also have to demonstrate that he could also predict earthquakes "beyond reasonable doubt" - not many seismologists will stick their necks that far out!
not rated yet Sep 21, 2011
The prosecution might try to get the guy who owns this site of course - but please read his disclaimer :0
3 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2011
If some religious scientist(pope,priest etc) have foretold about it and have failed,they would have done nothing.Or is this news a joke??.I am Pinching Myself.Grr..... no i am awake,i live in wonderful world.Ha ha hah...........
not rated yet Sep 25, 2011
they are being prosecuted for saying publicly with confidence that after small tremors had been felt there was very low probability of a major earthquake occuring

Very low != zero. Case closed.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 02, 2011
Plagiarism in a "family" style
How young ambitious capoes and soldiers from Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) under supervision of a decrepit american don-godfather from Northwestern University are successfully completed their sequential plagiaristic enterprise:

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