Imagine a local meteorologist in your town being prosecuted by the government authority for the “crime” of failing to accurately predict the severity of the weather at an exact time and precise location because a few people caught in a sudden storm were harmed.
That’s ridiculous, right?
Well, of course it’s ridiculous, but not if the weather forecaster did it in Italy.
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison for failure to predict with pinpoint accuracy the severity of that 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.
A misguided Italian regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter, i.e. responsible for the deaths of several people killed in the quake. In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again. The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.
They gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, said government prosecutors.
The seven defendants -- all prestigious scientists and members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, some of whom are Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts -- were accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.
In other words, they honestly thought that it would not be as severe in terms of damages as it actually turned out to be.
There was no intent to harm anyone.
But being honest with good intentions in Italy can make you guilty of manslaughter.
Many smaller tremors had rattled the area in the months before the quake that destroyed much of the historic centre. Then, a 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.
The Apennines, the belt of mountains that runs down through the centre of Italy, is riddled with faults, and the "Eagle" city of L'Aquila has been hammered time and time again by earthquakes which have caused great damage to buildings and other structures.
So the reality of the matter is that it was not a question of if there would be another quake, but exactly when the next big one would happen. Given the state of earthquake science today it was impossible to predict the timing and precise magnitude of such events with any degree of accuracy.
No scientist today has that power. The best that they can do is to speculate about probabilities in the future and that is what they apparently did in this instance. Scholarly bodies around the world have said it was beyond anyone to predict exactly what would happen in L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.
After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK's Open University, said earthquakes are "inherently unpredictable." "The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game," he said.
The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial. Some have warned that it might set a damaging precedent, deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits.
"If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled," said Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK's Royal Berkshire Hospital.
What’s next with the criminal authorities in Italy?
Will lawyers there be prosecuted and imprisoned for failing to accurately predict how a jury will decide a case? Will other professionals be deemed guilty of criminal offences for advice to their clients which turns out to be “inaccurate? “
Most civilized nations I’m aware of observe the doctrine of ‘mens rea’ (guilty mind) as part of their criminal laws, especially in serious felony cases involving the death of a victim.
It simply means that the defendant must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have criminal intent in committing the act for which he is charged. There must be evidence as a necessary element of the crime that the defendant knew that the act was wrong: "the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty."
In Italy one can be guilty of multiple manslaughter without criminal intent.