L'Aquila Earthquake Scientists Win Manslaughter Appeal

The destruction from the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy seen here in the nearby village of Casentino.
The destruction from the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy seen here in the nearby village of Casentino. (Image credit: University Museum, State University "G. d'Annunzio" of Chieti-Pescara, Italy)

The Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter for failing to sufficiently warn the public before the deadly 2009 L'Aquila earthquake won an appeal of their conviction Monday (Nov. 10).

An appeals court in L'Aquila overturned the 2012 convictions and completely cleared the six scientists, according to the Associated Press. The men were members of an official commission convened to evaluate the threat from tremors that had rocked L'Aquila for months before a magnitude-6.3 quake killed 309 people on April 6, 2009.

In October 2012, the six scientists, along with one government official who served on the committee, were sentenced to six years in prison for underestimating the city's earthquake risk and giving the false impression that there was nothing to fear from the tremors. Prosecutors said reassuring statements from the official, Bernardo De Bernardinis, convinced L'Aquila residents to sleep indoors the night of the earthquake, which increased the number of people who died in collapsed buildings.

The appeals court on Monday upheld the guilty verdict against De Bernardinis, issuing a two-year sentence. At the time of the earthquake, De Bernardinis was a deputy director with the Italian government's Civil Protection unit.

In a television interview that aired six days before the earthquake, De Bernardinis said, "The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy." But he made this claim before the commission had even met, and earthquake experts later said there was no validity to the statement.

The original verdict generated controversy among scientists worldwide, who feared the case would discourage scientists from providing valuable advice to the public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science warned that the case would have a "chilling effect" on researchers.

The appeals court will release its reasoning for overturning the guilty verdicts within 90 days.

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Becky Oskin
Contributing Writer
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.