On April 6, 2009, a 6.3 earthquake struck the Italian city of L'Aquila. The quake damaged thousands of medieval-era buildings and killed 309 people.
Those deaths prompted Italian prosecutors to charge six seismologists and a government official with manslaughter on the grounds that they gave "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about the mortal risks a quake in the area would pose. The idea that scientists could be held responsible for failing to predict the deadly earthquake was considered laughable – until a court found them guilty.
It's been nearly a year since those verdicts were handed down, and one of the scientists is still arguing his case – this time in a letter published this week in the journal Science (subscription required).
"I have been sentenced to 6 years of imprisonment for failing to give adequate advance warning to the population of L'Aquila, a city in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about the risk of the 6 April 2009 earthquake that led to 309 deaths," begins Enzo Boschi, who headed Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology and was a member of the Major Risks Commission at the time of the quake. "I have been found guilty despite the illogical charges and accusations that set dangerous precedents for the future of the scientific process."
Boschi makes his case on multiple fronts. For starters, seismologists don't know how to predict earthquakes; the best they can do is estimate risks for large areas. Indeed, Boschi had led scientists at the institute in producing a seismic hazard map in 2003. "The map clearly shows Abruzzo as a hazardous zone," he writes.
The prosecution didn't pay any attention to that map, Boschi says. Instead, prosecutors focused on a 1995 journal article that addressed a narrow question: whether clusters of strong earthquakes in a particular area could be used to forecast quakes.
Boschi and his colleagues had written that predictions made for the area around L'Aquila were unreliable because they were "based on three events that occurred between the 17th and 18th centuries – hardly a sufficient basis to describe what would happen in subsequent centuries." But the prosecution made it sound like he had told the world L'Aquila was not at risk at all.
"The public prosecutor completely distorted the argument," Boschi writes.
He also pointed out that the institute he led was not in charge of warning the public about earthquake risks. That responsibility fell squarely on the shoulders of the Civil Protection Agency, an arm of the prime minister's office, he writes.
"As a former president of the INGV, I never spoke to the media about the seismic situation at L'Aquila," he writes.
It is unclear whether his letter – in one of the most high-profile and well-respected scientific publications in the world – will make much difference to his case. Boschi and his colleagues have had the support of the scientific community all along.
(Four members of the Major Risks Commission quit in protest the day after the verdicts were announced. Luciano Maiani, a physicist who had been in charge of the commission, said he and his colleagues stepped down because it had become an "impossibility" that they could "work in serenity and offer highly scientific analyses to the state in these complex conditions.")
Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC, told LiveScience that Boschi's arguments make sense.
"He makes a powerful defense against the unjustified conviction of scientists in the L'Aquila case" Jordan said.
Boschi and his fellow defendants have appealed their verdicts.