Scientists Convicted of Manslaughter for Failing to Predict Italian Quake

Some victims of the devastating 2009 quake feel justice is served.

ByABC News
October 22, 2012, 3:50 PM

LONDON Oct. 22, 2012— -- Giustino Parisse knelt by his children's beds, trying to relax them. They had been jolted awake by a small earthquake near the picturesque Italian town of L'Aquila. He told them that scientists and local officials had appeared on TV, saying there was nothing to worry about. So, on their advice, he soothed his children to sleep.

Later that night, a much more powerful earthquake hit his town. His house collapsed. Both of his children died.

"They gave the impression to the outside world that there was nothing to be afraid of," Parisse, a journalist, told the BBC, sitting on the rubble where his kitchen used to be. "That message had no basis to it."

Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and a local government official for failing to warn him. His children would still be alive, he argued, had the scientists done their job properly.

Science cannot predict earthquakes. But today, in a decision that stunned many, Parisse and fellow residents won their case. A court in L'Aquila found the scientists guilty of manslaughter, of providing "superficial and ineffective" assessments and of disclosing "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information about earthquake danger.

The verdict's shockwaves travelled quickly.

"I'm dejected, despairing. I still don't understand what I'm accused of," Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute, told reporters today. Boschi faces six years in jail if his appeal is rejected.

Tom Jordan, a seismologist with the University of Southern California who chaired an international commission on earthquake forecasting, investigated the quake and wrote about what they learned for the Italian government.

He called it the verdict the "seismological trial of the century" and said its being talked about by seismologists everywhere.

Jordan also did not think such a verdict could be reached in the U.S.

"Our legal system is quite different than theirs and I don't think this would have played out that way in the U.S. But I think it does have a chilling effect," he said. "[As a result of this] there are a lot of discussions between scientists regarding how they communicate what they know to an audience."

Before the verdict, 5,000 scientists from around the world signed a letter supporting those on trial, arguing it was impossible to predict an earthquake and accusing the court of putting science on trial.

"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," said the letter, signed by Alan Leshner, the CEO and executive published of the journal Science. "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."

But the plaintiffs focused on a particular moment that they say influenced their decision not to evacuate their homes, as they normally would. On March 31, 2009, Italy's equivalent of FEMA -- the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks -- responded to residents' concerns following a series of small earthquakes. The commission concluded in a memo that a major quake was "unlikely," according to the Italian news agency Ansa, though it stressed it was not impossible.