Italian scientists win appeal against manslaughter charge for 'understanding risk of L’Aquila earthquake'


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Appeal judges in L’Aquila have cleared six scientists who were handed six-year jail terms for allegedly understating the earthquake risk in the mountain city in the days leading up to an April 2009 quake that killed 309 people.

The six seismologists were found guilty of manslaughter in the original trial.

The court in L'Aquila, the city struck by the 6.3-magnitude quake, overturned guilty verdicts, saying no crime had been committed. The decision was met by cries of "shame" in the courtroom, packed with quake survivors.

Defence lawyer Franco Coppi expressed understanding for the protests.

"We're satisfied with the decision," Coppi said. But "we are sorry for the families of the victims."

While it cleared the so-called great risks commission of experts, which had issued statements assuring residents after meeting days before the deadly quake, the court upheld a guilty verdict against a civil protection agency official regarding statements he made, and issued a suspended two-year sentence. The verdict's reasoning won't be known for 90 days.

"It's a strange verdict. It overturned everything," said Wania Della Vigna, a lawyer representing 11 of about 30 plaintiffs who claim proof they changed their habits based on the panel's reassurances.

Della Vigna and other lawyers for the plaintiffs indicated they would challenge the decision to Italy's highest court.

Seismic scientists around the globe reacted with dismay to the initial conviction and six-year sentence, arguing it misunderstood the science behind earthquake probabilities.

The head of Italy's geologic institute, Stefano Gresta, said the decision restored "credibility to the entire Italian scientific community."

The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological or disaster experts who made up a risk commission advising the government, were charged with manslaughter and causing bodily harm for giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by L'Aquila residents prior to the quake should have been grounds for a warning.