(LONDON) — Giustino Parisse knelt by his children’s beds, trying to relax them. They had been jolted awake by a small earthquake near the picturesque Italian town of L’Aquila. He told them that scientists and local officials had appeared on TV, saying there was nothing to worry about. So, on their advice, he soothed his children to sleep.
Later that night, a much more powerful earthquake hit his town. His house collapsed. Both of his children died.
“They gave the impression to the outside world that there was nothing to be afraid of,” Parisse, a journalist, told the BBC, sitting on the rubble where his kitchen used to be. “That message had no basis to it.”
Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and a local government official for failing to warn him. His children would still be alive, he argued, had the scientists done their job properly.
Science cannot predict earthquakes. But Monday, in a decision that stunned many, Parisse and fellow residents won their case. A court in L’Aquila found the scientists guilty of manslaughter, of providing “superficial and ineffective” assessments and of disclosing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about earthquake danger.
The verdict’s shockwaves travelled quickly.
“I’m dejected, despairing. I still don’t understand what I’m accused of,” Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute, told reporters Monday. Boschi faces six years in jail if his appeal is rejected.
Tom Jordan, a seismologist with the University of Southern California who chaired an international commission on earthquake forecasting, investigated the quake and wrote about what they learned for the Italian government.
He called the verdict the “seismological trial of the century” and said it’s being talked about by seismologists everywhere.
Jordan also did not think such a verdict could be reached in the U.S.
“Our legal system is quite different than theirs and I don’t think this would have played out that way in the U.S. But I think it does have a chilling effect,” he said. “[As a result of this] there are a lot of discussions between scientists regarding how they communicate what they know to an audience.”
Before the verdict, 5,000 scientists from around the world signed a letter supporting those on trial, arguing it was impossible to predict an earthquake and accusing the court of putting science on trial.
“It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning,” said the letter, signed by Alan Leshner, the CEO and executive publisher of the journal Science. “Subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas.”
But the plaintiffs focused on a particular moment that they say influenced their decision not to evacuate their homes, as they normally would. On March 31, 2009, Italy’s equivalent of FEMA — the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks — responded to residents’ concerns following a series of small earthquakes. The commission concluded in a memo that a major quake was “unlikely,” according to the Italian news agency Ansa, though it stressed it was not impossible.
Franco Barbieri ended the meeting by saying there was “no reason to say that a sequence of shocks of low magnitude can be considered a precursor of a strong event.”
On television, Bernardo de Bernadinis, then the deputy director of the civil protection department, tried to reassure the population. “The scientific community keeps saying the situation is favorable because of the continuous discharge of energy,” said de Bernadinis.
The earthquake that killed Parisse’s children and 300 other people – including more than 10 percent of L’Aquila hamlet – hit six days later. Much of L’Aquila is still destroyed.
The six scientists and one government official who were convicted will now appeal.
This is “a profound mistake,” argued physicist Luciano Maiani, who currently chairs the High Risks Committee. Those convicted “are professionals who have spoken in good faith and were not driven by personal interests.”
But residents who lost family members in the earthquake hailed the verdict.
“The State’s main duty is to provide security,” argued Aldo Scimia, whose mother was killed. “And they failed.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio