A court in Abruzzo, Italy, on Monday found that six Italian scientists and an ex-government official were negligent in their evaluation of the dangers posed by a 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people in the town of L'Aquila. Specifically, sole judge Marco Billi found [Reuters report] that the members of the country's Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi [official website, in Italian], or National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, committed malpractice when they understated the risks facing the ancient town, which was filled with fragile buildings and had been partially ravaged by earthquakes on three prior occasions. The controversial outcome of the decision, however, is that Billi found all seven guilty of criminal manslaughter and causing criminal injury, and, although the prosecution requested only four years imprisonment, the judge felt that the crimes warranted a harsher sentence of six years in jail [Corriere della Sera report, in Italian]. Several international science organizations, including the American Geophysical Union [official website], have proffered that a miscommunication of science should not subject responsible scientists to prison time, as such drastic repercussions of litigation may deter scientists from working with governments in the future. While prosecutors admitted that they did not expect a precise forecast from the accused, they argued that the scientists gave incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information regarding the significance of the low-level tremors felt throughout L'Aquila leading up to the earthquake, as well as the potential dangers of the much larger earthquake.
Italy is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in Europe and endures continual criticism related to its disaster preparedness. The most recent earthquake occurred in May [BBC report] when a series of tremors reaching a 5.8 magnitude killed 16 people and injured hundreds of others in the Emilia Romagna region. The ancient town of L'Aquila was struck [BBC report] by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake at 3:32AM on April 6, 2009. It damaged [Corriere della Sera report] or completely destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, injured more than 1,000 people, and killed 308.