Geologists who didn't warn a town about an impending earthquake are not murderers, an Italian appeals court ruled today.
A 2012 decision that rocked the scientific world was overturned today by an appeals court, according to Italy's Repubblica newspapers and confirmed by other Italian outlets. In that decision, six prominent geologists and one government worker were convicted of manslaughter for failing to notify the town of L'Aquila of a 2009 earthquake that killed at least 309 people. The scientists were originally sentenced to six years in prison and were to pay more than $10 million in damages.
On March 31, 2009, six days before the earthquake, the scientists had downplayed the likelihood of a major quake despite increased seismic activity in the area. The judge in the original case said that the scientists had made "an assessment of the risks that was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken."
being wrong as a scientist isn’t a crime
The conviction was seen as a gross injustice: Earthquake predicting is notoriously difficult, and groups like the United States Geological Survey are constantly looking for ways to give communities even several seconds-advanced warning of seismic activity. Expecting the Italian scientists to predict the L'Aquila earthquake was ludicrous, according to a Nature editorial published soon after the conviction.
"Science has little political clout in Italy and the trial proceeded in an absence of informed public debate that would have been unthinkable in most European countries or in the United States," Nature editors wrote. "The verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous. Already some scientists have responded with warnings about the chilling effect on their ability to serve in public risk assessments."
Today, an appeals court agreed with Nature and much of the scientific community, acquitting the seven because of a "lack of evidence."
Earlier today, Giulio Selvaggi, one of the scientists, said that short-term earthquake prediction is an "impossibility." He noted that, at the time, L'Aquila was marked as being in an area having the "highest hazard" of a possible earthquake.
"With this belief I went to the meeting on March 31  and I would go there again today to state the same things," he said. "The conscience of having spoken with scientific rigour and with honesty does not attenuate, as in the past, my grief for the victims of this earthquake."
It appears that even in a country that has in recent years been notoriously terrible for science, being wrong as a scientist isn’t a crime.