Italian Seismologists’ Appeal Proceedings

We posted twice before about six Italian scientists and an ex-government official who were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison, plus a permanent ban from civil service, because of the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. Our first post was two years ago: Seismologists Convicted, Idiots Delighted. Five months later we wrote Italian Seismologists Appeal Their Convictions.

We said that their conviction might be the most insane court decision since Galileo’s heresy conviction. Galileo got convicted for saying that the Earth moves, and then these guys get convicted for failing to say it would move. For background information, we’ll repeat a quote from a news story at the time:

According to the prosecutors, the experts underestimated the risk that a major shock might be on its way, and some of them made exceedingly reassuring statements to the press, implying that a strong earthquake would surely not happen. As a result, the prosecutors argued, on 6 April 2009, when a magnitude-6.3 quake occurred, 29 people who would otherwise have fled their homes during a tremor decided to stay inside and were killed when the houses collapsed.

It’s been almost a year and a half since they started the appeal. From time to time we search for news of their plight, but we haven’t found anything — until now. This appeared at the website of Nature a few days ago: Italian seismologists fight to overturn convictions. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The six Italian scientists and one government official who were convicted of manslaughter in relation to statements they made before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy are back in court to appeal the ruling.

[…]

The appeal began on 10 October and is expected to be unusually quick by Italian standards. The three-judge court says that it wants to wrap up the proceedings by the end of the month or by early November at the latest.

We assume it’s the appeal hearings that began on 10 October, during which there appears to have been a recital of what happened at the original trial. Let’s read on:

On 31 March 2009, after four months during which residents of L’Aquila had been unnerved by a series of small earthquakes, the seven men took part in a meeting of the major risks commission, an expert group that advises the Italian government. According to the prosecution, the meeting resulted in a reassuring message — conveyed through local and national media — that convinced L’Aquila citizens that no strong earthquake could happen in the following days.

The prosecution says that when the magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck on 6 April 2009, 29 people who might have otherwise fled decided to stay in their homes on the basis of that reassurance, and were killed when their houses collapsed. The judge said that the message of the meeting contributed directly to the deaths of those 29 people in particular, out of 309 who lost their lives in the quake.

Have there been any earthquakes in Italy since then? If there were, did any anyone dare to make any predictions? Maybe “Run for your lives!” is the only safe thing to say in that country. We continue:

Unlike the first trial, in which dozens of citizens and experts appeared as witnesses, the appeal is an affair mostly between the judges, the public prosecutor and the defendants’ lawyers. The key points are still the same: whether the defendants did explicitly reassure the population; and whether a causal link can be proven between whatever was or was not said and where those citizens chose to spend the night of 6 April 2009.

They probably meant to say: “chose to spend the night in their homes.” Here’s more:

Much of the prosecution’s case revolves around a television interview, recorded a few hours before the meeting but aired after it, in which De Bernardinis [defendant Bernardo De Bernardinis, now president of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection (ISPRA) in Rome, and deputy head of the Italian Civil Protection Department at the time of the earthquake] said that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” — a statement that most seismologists deem incorrect. Although no such statement appears in the minutes of the meeting that followed, the judge argued in 2012 that the other six defendants did nothing to contradict De Bernardinis’s words, and did not sufficiently highlight the probability of a strong earthquake and its possible consequences.

That certainly justifies a manslaughter conviction for the whole pack of them — in Italy, anyway. Moving along:

In a hearing on 18 October, the defence took the stand. Carlo Sica, the lawyer representing the Italian State, asked for the seven to be fully discharged. He said that there can be no link between the meeting, which was not public, and what people did on the day of the earthquake. Instead, he blamed the media for creating a “short circuit” that delivered a wrong message, presenting the TV interview as if it were the outcome of the meeting.

Egad — the defense is blaming the media! But journalists are never to blame for anything. Another excerpt:

[The lawyer for one of the defendants, Claudio Eva, a professor of Earth physics at the University of Genoa,] Alessandra Stefano made the same point, noting that no reassuring message can be found in statements actually made by any of the indicted during or after the meeting. She also attacked local and national civil-protection officials, who were legally responsible for protecting and informing the citizens, and instead diverted blame to the scientists.

There’s a lotta blame being slung around. On with the article:

[The lawyer for Giulio Selvaggi, former director of the INGV’s National Earthquake Centre in Rome,] Franco Coppi described his client’s predicament as “profoundly unjust”. Selvaggi was not a formal member of the major risks commission and was in L’Aquila only to accompany his boss, Boschi, but was nonetheless charged and found guilty.

Poor guy. And now we come to the end:

The next hearings will take place on 24 and 25 October, when lawyers for the other defendants will make their arguments. On 31 October, the prosecution will present counteraguments. The court is expected to deliver its verdict shortly afterwards.

Italian appeals are lengthy proceedings. Anyway, we’ll have the results soon. Considering the risks associated with making predictions about things that might happen in Italy, we shall prudently refrain from speculating about the outcome.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Italian Seismologists’ Appeal Proceedings

  1. I love almost all things Italian, but one of my favorite quotes in moviedom is from the movie “Come September” when Gina Lollobrigida’s character cries out “I don’t have to make sense, I’m Italian !”

  2. So scientists were criminally charged for not being all knowing?

  3. So the next time the equipment indicates a coming quake the scientists will be sued by numerous businesses because they yelled ‘run fer yer lives’ and all that happened was a slight tremor and massive loss of business.
    Personally if I was an earth scientist I would say anything about anything to anyone, and when questioned I would claim my equipment was broken on that week. Better still I would leave the country, let them pray and see where that gets them.

  4. L.Long: “…let them pray and see where that gets them.”

    Ha! I’d bet the Italian courts would toss the pope in jail if the prayers didn’t work.

  5. This is a foretaste of what happens when science is put in the hands of inept cretins, possibly corrupt ones, whose only interest is in easy, formulaic answers that can readily be turned into sound bites as fodder with which to keep filled the trough of public opinion. They have zero interest in either the subtleties or the complexities of the subject matter, and even less interest in properly informing themselves. (Actually, given Galileo’s prominent example, it’s another aftertaste of the persistent meddling of said inept cretins who only pay lip service opportunistically to scientific rigour and the discipline it requires.)

    The reassurances the seismologists are alleged to have given don’t ring true because every seismologist knows how hard a problem earthquake prediction is (Frau Doktor Con-Tester is a seismologist — and sometimes an earthquake too, but that’s a whole other story), and it’s highly unlikely that the Italians would have employed rash seismological greenhorns in such advisory capacities.

    A Dunning-Krugerian tumour seems to have taken hold of the Italian judiciary.