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Guido Bertolaso

Prosecutors had requested a 3-year prison sentence for Guido Bertolaso, shown here in 2009.

Elena Torre/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Seven-year legal saga ends as Italian official is cleared of manslaughter in earthquake trial

ROME—The man accused of sending a group of scientists to the central Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009 to falsely reassure citizens that no major earthquake was about to strike has been cleared of manslaughter charges. Guido Bertolaso, who at the time was head of Italy’s Civil Protection department, was acquitted by Judge Giuseppe Grieco on Friday on the grounds of “not having committed the crime.” The verdict brings to an end 7 years of legal actions initiated by relatives of some of the 309 victims of the deadly earthquake that struck L’Aquila on 6 April 2009.

The trial of Bertolaso follows that of the scientists themselves—three seismologists, a volcanologist, two seismic engineers, and Bertolaso’s deputy, Bernardo De Bernardinis—who all took part in a meeting of an official advisory committee held 6 days before the earthquake. The experts were prosecuted on manslaughter charges for having allegedly underestimated the risk posed by an ongoing series of small- and medium-sized tremors in and around L’Aquila, and of having given advice at the time of their meeting that led many people to stay indoors on the night of the deadly quake itself—and perish as a result.

That hugely controversial trial resulted in convictions and 6-year jail sentences for all seven scientists, but six of those convictions were overturned on appeal and then definitively quashed by Italy’s supreme court last November. Only De Bernardinis had his conviction confirmed, albeit with a lesser 2-year sentence, which will remain suspended.

Investigations of Bertolaso’s role in the prequake reassurances began following the release of a police phone tap in January 2012, while the scientists’ trial was taking place. In the phone call, made to a local Civil Protection official the day before the experts met, Bertolaso said he was sending the scientists to L’Aquila to carry out “a media operation” in order to “shut up any imbecile,” most likely a reference to Gioacchino Giuliani, a technician at the nearby Gran Sasso physics laboratory who had reportedly raised a series of alarms about impending strong quakes in the weeks beforehand.

Bertolaso’s trial only got the go-ahead in October of last year, after the prosecutor in the original trial twice requested that the case against him be dropped. Following opposition to those requests by three relatives of the deceased and their lawyers, hearings got underway in March and concluded on Friday, only 6 days before the trial would have been timed out. (Italy’s “period of limitation” dictates that a verdict much be reached within 7.5 years of the event, in this case the earthquake.)

During Bertolaso’s trial, there was much discussion of the idea that lots of smaller tremors are a good thing because they discharge energy and therefore reduce the chances of a major quake taking place. Considered by many seismologists to be false, it was this idea that witnesses in the original trial said victims found particularly reassuring and that persuaded them to stay indoors. De Bernardinis relayed the notion to the public in a now infamous interview he gave just ahead of the scientists’ meeting on 31 March 2009—which is why he was convicted for manslaughter.

But Bertolaso appeared to endorse the same concept in his tapped phone call; he told his interlocutor that the experts would go to L’Aquila and would say, “it's better that there are 100 magnitude-4 tremors rather than silence because 100 tremors release energy and there won't ever be the damaging tremor.”

In summing up his case against Bertolaso last Tuesday, prosecutor Romolo Como in L'Aquila said he had no doubt that the ex–Civil Protection boss was the real instigator of the reassuring message spread by De Bernardinis. “It is true that Bertolaso didn’t take part in the meeting. But it wasn’t the case that De Bernardinis did what he did on his own initiative,” he told the court, before requesting that Bertolaso be sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Having evidently not been persuaded by Como’s arguments, Judge Grieco now has 3 months to release the reasoning behind his verdict. However, the fact that he did not acquit Bertolaso on the grounds that “the crime didn’t take place,” one of five possible alternatives available to him, suggests to some, including plaintiff lawyer Angelo Colagrande in L'Aquila, that Grieco believed there was insufficient evidence to link Bertolaso to De Bernardinis’s reassuring message.

“I bow before a magistrate who managed to remain impartial despite pressure,” Bertolaso said in a message posted on Facebook.

Reactions from victims' relatives were divided. Federico Vittorini, who lost his mother and sister in the earthquake, told the local news website AbruzzoWeb that he had “much bitterness for yet again being taken for a ride by the justice system.” But Pier Paolo Visione, whose sister died in L’Aquila, told ScienceInsider in an email that “we put the state in a difficult position by presenting it with the historical and legal facts for 7 years.” He added: “That is enough.”

Because of the timing out, the prosecution has no time for an appeal. In a television interview a few months ago, when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Rome, Bertolaso said he was willing to waive his right to have the trial curtailed. In court, however, his lawyer Filippo Dinacci did not confirm the waiver.