By Megan Williams
In an unusual case, a group of scientists went on trial in Italy on Tuesday. They are charged with manslaughter in connection with the earthquake that struck the mountain city of L'Aquila in April 2009. More than 300 people were killed in L'Aquila and the surrounding towns. The prosecution accuses the scientists of failing to properly warn residents of the danger.
Months before the earthquake, smaller tremors rattled the historic Italian city. Worried residents spent a number of nights sleeping outside. They asked authorities for advice. What they got were false reassurances from a committee of the country's top earthquake experts.
At least, that's what the prosecution is charging in the trial of six Italian scientists and a member of the country's civil protection agency. They cite a memo from the committee, and interviews given by committee members in the week before the big quake.
In one now infamous interview, Bernardo De Bernardinis, a civil protection agency spokesman, told a local journalist that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was normal and posed "no danger." In fact, he said the scientific community had assured him that the situation was favorable because the continuous tremors meant a discharge of energy.
Some residents of L'Aquila felt reassured enough to go back to their homes, which is why prosecutors have charged the scientists and De Bernardinis with manslaughter.
The men are accused of "negligence and imprudence" for having ineffectively assessed the risks of seismic activity, as well as giving "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information" to the public, even though the memo issued by the committee did stress that it was impossible to predict when a larger quake could occur.
Francesco Petrelli, a defense attorney for the accused head of the committee, Franco Barberi, said the scientific committee's role was not to advise the public, only to assess the risk of an earthquake and pass that information on to the civil protection agency. He insists his client acted properly in assessing that risk.
"The accusations are generic and vague," Petrelli said. "There is no mention of what exactly the committee should have done differently. They're accused of reassuring the public, which isn't true, but there's no mention of what they should have done that they didn't do."
More than 5,000 scientists worldwide have signed a petition in support of the Italian scientists, protesting what they say is basically a trial for having failed to predict an earthquake, a technical impossibility.
But while many seismologists agree criminal charges set a dangerous precedent for scientists working with questions of probability, not all agree the Italian experts acted properly.
John Mutter, a Columbia University professor of seismology, didn't sign the petition in support of the Italians. He thinks the charges go too far, but he said the scientists should be held accountable through fines or public or professional censure.
"Even if we can't predict and everyone knows we can't, the way to think about it is if you can't say when an earthquake is going to occur, we equally can't say when one is not going to occur. And to suggest that somehow we know a major earthquake is not going to occur seems to me irresponsible," Mutter said.
Some L'Aquila residents who lost loved-ones in the quake are now suing the scientists, saying a simple reminder of how to respond to a big earthquake could have saved lives. University of Naples geochemist Benedetto de Vivo agrees.
"Italy has a long experience of people suffering from earthquakes," De Vivo said. "The first thing they do is not sleep at home for a number of nights, but if an authority tells the people, don't worry, stay calm, a lot of people will think it's okay, should think they are correct."
The trial, which could last months, raises a larger question, one that has scientists around the world concerned – whether public authorities who may have been too reassuring should now be held criminally responsible.