Final defence arguments due to be heard in Italian trial of scientists who 'failed to predict' L'Aquila earthquake


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The Independent Online

The trial in earthquake-torn Italian city of L’Aquila that has send shock waves through the international scientific community today heard final pleas on behalf of experts accused of downplaying the dangers ahead of the quake that claimed more than 300 lives.

Prosecutors have called on six scientists and one senior civil protection official to each be jailed for four years for manslaughter and causing serious injury. They say the experts understated the risk of a massive quake striking the medieval mountain city following a series of small tremors, and that, as a result, many inhabitants who would have fled their ancient homes instead remained indoors on the night of 5 April 2009, when the disaster razed L’Aquila to the ground.

However, leading scientists have said the seven defendants have been made scapegoats for what was an unforeseeable natural disaster. And today the lawyers began their final pleas, insisting there was no proof the officials’ advice had added to the death toll.

The seven defendants include the prominent scientists Enzo Boschi, the former president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and Giulio Selvaggi, the organisation’s current head. They were members of a panel that had met six days before the disaster to assess risk after a series of tremors had shaken the city. All seven, acting as members of the National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, deny any wrong-doing or negligence.

Yesterday in his final pleas on behalf of Professor Boschi, the lawyer Marcello Melandri argued that the conclusions of the expert panel in the days before the earthquake could not have inappropriately put citizens’ minds at rest because they had not been sufficiently diffused.

“No-one has yet resolved the problem of who it was who reassured the public of L’Aquila, which was undoubtedly reassured, I’m not doubting that,” he said. “But there’s certainly no proof it was the Major Risks Commission and particularly none implicating Professor Boschi, which is why I’m calling for his acquittal.”

Some inhabitants of L’Aquila have claimed, however, that the expert meeting and small press conference on 31 March 2009, did encourage them to remain at home when their instincts told them to flee. One such person was local surgeon Vincenzo Vittorini, who says he decided to stay indoors, despite a significant 3.9 magnitude tremor on the day before the killer quake.

In the event, his apartment collapsed in the early hours of 6 April and he lost his wife and young daughter. He said he had been one of the residents assured by advice that the series of small shocks was no cause for alarm.

These comments have been attributed to one of the seven defendants, Bernardo De Bernardinis, a senior figure in Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, who appeared to respond casually to a rhetorical question asking whether residents should simply sit back with a glass of wine. “Absolutely,” he said, “a Montepulciano DOC”, adding there was “no danger” because the small shocks indicated that a “continuous discharge of energy” was occurring.

When the indictment of all seven was announced last year, Rick Aster, the president of the Seismological Society of America, said the trial “reflected a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes”. He noted it was impossible “to accurately and consistently predict the timing, location, and magnitude of earthquakes”.

But other scientists have suggested that the expert panel, in seeking to prevent panic, may have failed to communicate all the known information.

The occurrence of 400 or so small shocks in the region in the days ahead of the disaster raised the chances of an imminent major earthquake by a factor of 100 or perhaps 1,000, even though the absolute risk of such a quake occurring remained very low.

“The public has a right to know about this kind of information,” according to Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, at Cambridge University. “To suggest otherwise is patronising.”

The final defense arguments conclude tomorrow. The verdict is expected to come no later than 23 October.