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Judge in L'Aquila Earthquake Trial Explains His Verdict

ROME—The L'Aquila judge who last October sentenced seven scientists and engineers to 6 years in prison each for advice they gave ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake explained his reasons for the manslaughter convictions on Friday. He said that the seven, at the time members of an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had analysed the risk of a major quake in a "superficial, approximate and generic" way and that they were willing participants in a "media operation" to reassure the public.

The seven were brought to trial in September 2011 for advice they gave in a meeting on 31 March 2009, 6 days before the earthquake, and a day after the latest, and strongest, in an ongoing series of tremors, known as a swarm, to strike the area around L'Aquila. They were accused by the public prosecutor of having caused some of the town's residents to change their behaviour and led them to stay indoors on the night of the quake instead of seeking shelter outside, as they were used to doing when tremors happened.

Following his conviction of the seven commission members on 22 October, Judge Marco Billi had 90 days to make public his reasoning, and in the event did so with just 3 days to spare. The 950-page document Billi released, known as the "motivazione," shows him to have largely accepted the prosecutors' argument. He explains that the trial was not against science but against seven individuals who failed to carry out their duty as laid down by the law. The scientists were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake, something Billi says was impossible to do, but for their complete failure to properly analyze, and to explain, the threat posed by the swarm. Billi ruled that this failure led to the deaths of 29 of the 309 people killed in the quake and to the injuries of four others. "The deficient risk analysis was not limited to the omission of a single factor," he writes, "but to the underestimation of many risk indicators and the correlations between those indicators."

Billi supports the prosecutors' contention that the commission members had made contradictory and historically inaccurate statements regarding the possibility of earthquake precursors, that they had mischaracterized the swarm in L'Aquila, and that they had given the townsfolk the false impression that there was nothing to fear by describing the swarm as "normal" and by incorrectly stating that the swarm discharged energy.

He also says that the commission members failed to discuss a number of specific and relevant studies that they had access to, such as a 1995 paper co-authored by commission member Enzo Boschi, a geophysicist at the University of Bologna, which predicted L'Aquila was certain to be struck by a major earthquake by 2015. Failure to consider these studies, he writes, "is equivalent to the death of knowledge."

Prosecutors in the case had requested 4-year prison sentences. In going beyond that term, Billi says that "the guilt of the defendants is certainly severe" and adds that their guilt is accentuated by what he describes as the "conscious and uncritical adherence to the will of the head of the civil protection department," Guido Bertolaso, to carry out what Bertolaso had called a "media operation," which meant that the experts spoke directly with the public rather than via the civil protection department. Billi says that each of the seven commission members played an important role in the meeting and that they worked together as a collective unit.

Speaking with Italian news agency ANSA following the release of Billi's reasoning, Boschi, who at the time of the eartquake was president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), said that he didn't "feel in any way guilty." He added: "Surely the judge does not think that after warning of Italy's seismic risks for years I would have suddenly said that in L'Aquila there was no risk of an earthquake?"

In a press release, INGV criticized the trial for "focusing attention on very short-term prediction" and argued that the judge should instead have concentrated on what it calls the "main way of reducing seismic risk:" lowering buildings' vulnerability to earthquakes.

The convicted experts will remain free until after their appeal, which their lawyers must lodge within 45 days from the release of Billi's statement. With two or even three stages, the appeals process could last up to 6 years.