Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Four-Year Prison Terms Sought for Italian Earthquake Experts

On the attack. Fabio Picuti makes the case for the prosecution as the trial continues.

Edwin Cartlidge

Seven experts called upon to give advice ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck L'Aquila, Italy, in April 2009 should each be jailed for 4 years. That was the request made today by prosecutors in a manslaughter trial taking place in the central Italian city.

The seven were full or acting members of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The panel met on 31 March 2009 in L'Aquila to assess the danger posed by an ongoing series of seismic tremors known as a swarm that had been shaking the town and the surrounding area for the previous 3 months. The scientists, engineers, and a public official are accused of having carried out a superficial risk analysis and of having provided the townsfolk with a false sense of security a week before the quake struck.

The seven defendants are: Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome (Roma Tre) and the commission's then-vice-president; Enzo Boschi, a geophysicist at the University of Bologna and at the time president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV); Gian Michele Calvi, a seismic engineer at the University of Pavia; Mauro Dolce, a seismic engineer and director of seismic risk at Italy's Civil Protection Department (DPC); Claudio Eva, a seismologist at the University of Genova; and Giulio Selvaggi, a seismologist at INGV; alongside DPC's then-deputy head Bernardo De Bernardinis.

The trial started in September last year and has seen more than 100 witnesses testify, including many relatives and friends of the victims of the quake, as well as geophysicists, engineers, public officials, psychologists, and an anthropologist, along with the seven defendants themselves. Yesterday, in the 24th hearing, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti presented an 8-hour summary of the case against the indicted.

His arguments drew on witness statements as well as a draft version of the minutes of the 31 March meeting not available when he first formulated the charges in 2010. That document includes a number of controversial statements not contained in the official minutes, including a reference to the discredited idea that small tremors tend to reduce the chance of a bigger quake because they discharge energy. That concept was cited by many of the victims' relatives as having persuaded their loved ones to stay indoors in the early hours of 6 April 2009.

Today, Picuti's colleague Roberta D'Avolio argued how specific victims of the 2009 earthquake were persuaded by the statements of the commission, which were relayed to the public via press reports, to stay inside on the night of the quake. The next few weeks will see lawyers presenting civil claims, followed by closing arguments from defense lawyers. Judge Marco Billi is due to reach a verdict by 23 October.