The many errors on the L'Aquila earthquake

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One of the most overused phrases in this strange country is "you do not comment on judgments, you comply with them". Fabio Picuti, deputy prosecutor of L'Aquila, repeated it yesterday after the verdict was read which, well beyond his own request, sentenced the seven members of the Major Risks Commission (six plus one, to be honest) to six years imprisonment for manslaughter; they were on trial since a year ago for the facts related to the earthquake of 6 April 2009. A prosecutor must reply in this way, we do not. Judgments can certainly be discussed, and this one deserves lots of comments.

I have been covering this story for a long time for Nature, which, like many foreign media, paid much more attention to this complicated story than the large Italian newspapers; the latter discovered it just this morning, in many cases reporting blatantly inaccurate information (no, it is not a conviction for failing to forecast the earthquake, we hoped at least we would not read this any longer. Someone please explain this to Odifreddi, so to speak). There, I always stuck to the facts, because they were so intricate that simply trying to put them in line seemed to me the only service due to the readers. Our job, however, is also to interpret the facts, and here and there to take a stand. Now that the crucial point of the judgment (and what judgment) has been reached, I can say I developed my personal opinion, and I am grateful to Scienza in Rete for hosting it here.

Let's start from the end of the story. After reading the trial documents and having followed its key steps, I consider the judgment wrong and, in many ways, seriously wrong. But not for the reasons that many of my colleagues are repeating today in newspapers and social networks: a judgment against Science (of course, always with the Upper case), a symptom of deep-rooted unscientific culture in Italy, and so on, without omitting quoting Croce and Gentile and their baleful influence.

A criminal trial should be commented by using law arguments well before scientific arguments. This sentence seems wrong not because it is "unscientific", but just because it has little legal ground. Seven people will (would, if the judgment is confirmed) end up in jail for a very serious accusation based on insufficient evidence. This is always a very serious issue and unfortunately not a novelty in the Italian judicial system, which is often used to solve the thorny issues that politics cannot solve. This occurs all too often, and does not suddenly becomes more serious this time just because the defendants are scientists.

Let us remember again. The prosecution's case is based on the logical chain of professional negligence, which influences the course of events, eventually causing the death of a person which would not otherwise have occurred. Textbook definition of manslaughter. The thesis is that a superficial and inadequate risk analysis made during the meeting (this point is substantially not in question and Enzo Boschi himself called it such) led the civil protection to issue messages to people that were too reassuring compared to what science would have required (again, several of the defendants openly dissociated from those messages that essentially dismissed the possibility of a major earthquake, and international experts criticized them for doing so), and that those messages led some people to revise their plans, particularly those of leaving l'Aquila for a few days or sleeping in the car. But whatever the opinion on the first two points may be, the last one is the crucial one in order to reach a guilty verdict: did the trial prove beyond any reasonable doubt that those 29 citizens of L'Aquila would surely be alive today if those seven defendants had made something different? In my opinion the answer is no.

Much of the prosecution is based on what others recall about the reasons for the decisions taken by the victims several years ago. While those who lost their family and friends in this tragedy deserve total respect, and their good faith should not be questioned, it should be said that sending seven people to jail on this basis, from a legal standpoint, is a great gamble. And it is so also sending to jail someone who said the right things (this is the case for most of the participants at the meeting if we trust the minutes, maybe superficial but right things), due to the wrong things that someone else said after meeting that person. Or prosecuting an institution (the Major Risks Commission) including in the bundle even those who are not part of it but who were there to accompany their boss (as was the case for Selvaggi). The conviction was based on a notion of "collective responsibility" that, I suspect, would not stand a day in the courts of other countries.

Even if that causal link is proved, it is still not clear which is, according to the prosecutor, the specific event that "caused" the deaths. The meeting? The press conference? The television interview of De Bernardinis? They could not all have the same weigh. At the beginning of the trial, the Public Prosecutor seemed to consider De Bernardinis and the civil protection as the "bad guys" of the story, guilty of orchestrating a meeting that from the beginning was intended solely to produce a reassuring message that culminated in the infamous "glass of wine" to drink in order to dispel fear (for the record, it must be acknowledged that throughout the trial De Bernardinis correctly played his institutional role, putting himself on the line appearing in almost all the hearings and talking to the press, including last night, directly and not through lawyers). At the end of the trial, instead, the Public Prosecutor ended up defining De Bernardinis as a "victim" of seismologists, and their superficial analysis of the possible consequences of a major earthquake in the area. Now, either the meeting was a "media expedient" (as defined by Bertolaso in the telephone tapping of the previous day) and its ending was already written, and then scientists were at least partially fooled. Or the Civil Protection was genuinely open to the scientists' opinion and decided what to say to the people only after listening to them. The two hypotheses are mutually exclusive, and the Public Prosecutor did indeed support both. That a prosecutor may stretch his argument a bit to support the charge is admittedly part of the game, but the court's task is to notice it and decide accordingly. We will read the reasons, but it seems that the judge Marco Billi did not do so. Legal certainty does not come out well from this judgment, and at the cost of angering some of my closest "scientistic" friends (I think so little of the cloying opposition with the "anti scientists" that I cannot but write about them using quotes), I care about legal certainty even more than I care about the theory of evolution.

The result is a disproportionate judgment which is also inexplicably the same for all defendants. Convicting some and acquitting others would probably have been equally unjust, but at least it would have given the sense that 13-months of trial had been used to analyze, distinguish responsibilities, give directions for re-thinking risk prevention in the future, which must necessarily be grounded on greater clarity of roles: where do the responsibilities of scientific advisors end and where do those of politicians start? Who is responsible for the task of translating the uncertainty of science into effective communication to the public? The trial is the result of the great, unacceptable chaos surrounding these issues at that time (now things are a little changed for the better). If it were intended to contribute to a more mature relationship between science, politics and society, with this Urbi et Orbi judgment it squandered the opportunity.  

Does all this mean that no one has anything to reproach himself for the meeting of the Major Risks Commission? Or that scientists, when they become government consultants and therefore public officials should a priori not be considered accountable for their actions, the quality of their work and how it affects the choices of citizens? No. And, while not sharing this judgment, it is not enough to say that "the real culprits are those who built the houses." It is true, but it is not the whole truth. As the first Japanese passing by would confirm, preparation against the seismic risk has two, equally important legs: anti-seismic building and citizens education to earthquake danger. In Italy both are missing, and if the second one is missing this is largely because in the past the authorities (not without some help from excellent scientists) almost always chose the style of "communication" we saw in L'Aquila, embracing the extravagant and, in this writer's humble opinion, unacceptable theory supported in court by the sociologist Mario Morcellini, called as a witness for the defense: "Reassurance is the first obligation of a public body." Really? I thought the first one was telling the truth, and never mind if it is not reassuring, but maybe I'm just being romantic.

In L'Aquila, fundamental rights were violated too many times. It has happened for the past decades, when building speculators and complacent technicians from the local authorities built and authorized buildings (including large public buildings such as the Student's Home) in defiance of anti-seismic rules, in one of the most seismic areas in Europe. It happened again in late March and early April 2009, when to the legitimate and very human anxiety of a population exhausted by four months of shakes the authorities responded with a circus show (because that is what the meeting of the Major Risks Commission was, regardless of who is to blame), an improvised, imprecise and scientifically unfounded communication, in which the state simply did not treat its citizens as adults. However, the fundamental rights were also violated yesterday, with a judgment that does not reflect the facts emerged from the hearings, and that imposes a disproportionate punishment for liabilities that were not sufficiently proven in court.

And you do not remedy the infringement of a right by infringing another.

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