A minor victory in Italy

I’ve blogged about the l’Aquila earthquake trial but neglected to mention that all but one of the scientists convicted by the first-level court were acquitted by an appeals court in November 2014. David Wolman and Lorenzo Mannella reported:

Today, after a surprisingly swift-by-Italian-standards appeals process, the three-judge panel acquitted six of the men. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, received a two-year sentence for causing the death of some, but not all, of the 29 victims involved in the trial.

Much of the case, and subsequent appeal, hinged on an especially moronic statement made by De Bernardinis on the day of the now infamous meeting in L’Aquila preceding the quake. At the time, he was the number two official at the Civil Protection Department. In a television interview, De Bernardinis—whose training is in hydrology, not seismology—was asked if the swarm was a sign of worse to come.

“On the contrary,” he said. “The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy.”

As a stand-alone comment, it does sound reassuring, but almost all seismologists would say this is rubbish. Worse, the brief clip from that interview was aired afterthe experts met on the afternoon of March 31, leaving the false impression that it was a summary of their opinions, not a rogue misstatement from an official who should have known better.

But to go from this to causing the deaths of dozens of people was too much of a stretch for the appeals court.

Italian commenters, who are understandably more familiar with this case than the average Anglophone, point out that the scientists were convicted not for failing to predict the earthquake but for making false assurances to the public. According to David Wolman, no such assurances were offered: the scientists merely denied any signs of an impending quake, saying the probability of a disaster happening the next day was no higher than the same probability on any other day – relatively high because l’Aquila in Abruzzo is one of the most seismically dangerous places in Italy.

I would not take this acquittal as a sign that Italian courts have adopted methods of reasoning preferred by their Anglo-Saxon and South African colleagues. Rather, the appeals level might be more sensitive to the fact that some of the accused are senior members of respected state bodies blessed with powerful patrons.

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