Seven expert members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks have been convicted of manslaughter in Italy in relation to a devastating earthquake which struck the city of L’Aquila in 2009. The disaster killed over 300 people, injured over 1000 and left tens of thousands homeless. The court in L’Aquila found the experts guilty of multiple manslaughter and sentenced them each to six years in prison.

The defendants – consisting of six scientists and an ex-governmental official – were prosecuted for giving false assurances to the public before the earthquake struck. It was stated that the public had relied upon this information, which was ‘inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory’ and were reassured to remain in the city. Had they not been given this reassurance, many of those in the city may have evacuated the area, keeping them safely away from the impact of the incident.

In the months leading up to the disaster several hundred small tremors had hit the area, causing concern regarding the likelihood of a major impact. A meeting was held by the Commission in L’Aquila and following the meeting a statement was made at a press conference by one of the defendants stating that the situation was believed to be ‘normal’ and it was even ‘favourable’ that energy was being released in this way through the tremors. It was asserted by the prosecution at trial that the defendants were liable as a result of this statement for failing to properly communicate the risks.

The remaining six defendants involved have stated that they did not make this reassurance. It has been reported that the Board Minutes from the meeting show that at no point did the scientists say there was no danger. Much of the substance of the issue is alleged to have been the subject of considerable media misreporting. At the trial, however, prosecutors claimed that regardless of the fact that only one member of the committee made the statement to the media at the press conference, all the scientists involved were responsible for failing to correct him on this point.

The outcome of the prosecution saw Judge Marco Billi convict each of the experts of manslaughter in the Italian regional court – sentencing them to a six year prison sentence, barring them from ever holding a future public office, and ordering them to pay costs and damages to the value of €7.8 million (£6.4 million). The sentences were at a higher level than the four year prison sentences that were sought by the prosecution.

Throughout the process, the trial has resulted in uproar from the global scientific community. It is now feared that the ruling will set a seriously damaging precedent. Amongst those prosecuted were some of the most internationally respected seismologists and geological experts. More than 5000 scientists offered their support to the defendants through a signed letter to the Italian President prior to the conviction. Following the outcome, Head of Seismic Hazards and Archives at the British Geological Survey, Roger Musson, said:

‘This is a very sad business indeed, these are people I know, who were doing their best to give an accurate account of large earthquakes. It seems to be wrong that they should be prosecuted for offering scientific advice to the best of their ability. It will certainly make scientists less free in speaking out where perhaps their expertise is really needed.’

Under Italian law there are different levels of appeal possible before the sentence becomes definite, and therefore the experts will not immediately commence a prison sentence. Lawyers involved now await details of the judge’s sentencing, which is expected within 90 days.