Italian Scientists Appeal Earthquake Manslaughter Verdict

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The six scientists and one government official convicted of manslaughter over statements they made before a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 in the town of L'Aquila, Italy, have filed appeals against the verdict.

All seven met the March 6 deadline for filing, according to a Nature News blog.

Judge Marco Billi sentenced the seismologists and official to six years in prison on Oct. 22, 2012, after a yearlong trial. Three judges are expected to oversee the appeals trials, and in the meantime the prison sentences will remain on hold, Nature News reports.

The prosecutors contended that at a March 31 meeting in L'Aquila the defendants had downplayed the risks of a large earthquake after a series of tremors shook the Italian city in early 2009. On April 6, 2009, a magnitude-6.3 quake hit, and 29 people who would have fled their homes stayed put, only to be killed when the buildings collapsed. [See Photos of L'Aquila Earthquake Destruction]

At the controversial meeting, one of the defendants, earth scientist Enzo Boschi noted the uncertainty, saying a large earthquake was "unlikely," but saying that the possibility could not be excluded. However, a press conference that followed saw another telling citizens there was "no danger."

The verdict drew ire and condemnation from seismologists and other earth scientists around the globe.

"The idea is ridiculous, to hold scientists responsible for public policy," said Chris Goldfinger, a professor of geology and geophysics at Oregon State University, on the day of the verdict. "First, scientists have almost zero ability to predict earthquakes, and second, have no direct responsibility for public policy. Something has gone seriously wrong in the Italian legal system."  

The defendants' attorneys, in their appeals, are asking for the verdict to be overturned and all charges dropped, Nature News reports. They are arguing that all of the statements made during the March 31 meeting were scientifically accurate, and that political authorities, not this panel, should have the responsibility of informing the public of the risk.

Knowing whether small quakes are foreshocks for a larger temblor is impossible, according to seismologists. A 1988 study of other quake-prone Italian regions found, for example, that about half of large quakes were preceded by weaker foreshocks. But only 2 percent of small quake swarms heralded a larger rupture.

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