In a stunning verdict handed down by an Italian court today, six scientists and one government official were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for failing to predict the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the city of L’Aquila, on April 6, 2009. In addition, the seven were ordered to pay more than 9 million euros ($11.7 million) in damages to survivors and city residents.
The earthquake, which claimed 308 lives, injured more than 1,500 and left more than 65,000 homeless was the worst to strike Italy since 1980. Hundreds of small tremors stretching back four months preceded the deadly event, including a 4.1 magnitude shock a week earlier.
Despite the well-known fact that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, the prosecutor in the case charged that the scientists failed to warn the public of the impending disaster and, as a result, most people were inside and asleep when it struck at 3:32 AM local time.
The defendants were members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, which met in L’Aquila six days prior to the disaster but, according to the prosecution, downplayed the danger posed by recent tremors. In a statement to the press at the time, one member of the committee suggested that the tremors could ultimately prove beneficial by reducing stress within the underlying geology.
Having been partially destroyed several times over the centuries, the central Italian city was and remains home to many old and fragile structures.
Ironically, a technician at a Gran Sasso physics institute, Gioacchino Giuliani, claimed to have predicted the earthquake and posted a warning to that effect on the Internet. After cars with loudspeakers began broadcasting his warning throughout the city, Giuliani was charged with inciting panic through false alarms, and ordered to take down the warnings.
Giuliani’s prediction was based upon measurements of radon gas emissions using a device for which he holds a patent. Despite decades of investigation among seismologists, no accepted link between radon emissions and earthquakes has been found. Giuliani is neither a geophysicist nor seismologist, but works as a technician on an experiment that measures cosmic rays.