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The Courts Science

Manslaughter Conviction Overturned For Scientists Who Didn't Predict Earthquake 139

Jason Koebler writes: Geologists who didn't warn a town about an impending earthquake are not murderers, an Italian appeals court ruled today. A 2012 decision that rocked the scientific world has been overturned, according to Italy's Repubblica newspapers and confirmed by other Italian outlets. In that decision, six prominent geologists and one government worker were convicted of manslaughter for failing to notify the town of L'Aquila of a 2009 earthquake that killed at least 309 people. The scientists were originally sentenced to six years in prison and were to pay more than $10 million in damages.
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Manslaughter Conviction Overturned For Scientists Who Didn't Predict Earthquake

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  • by mmell ( 832646 ) <mike.mell@gmail.com> on Monday November 10, 2014 @08:00PM (#48355489)
    Unlike the US system, I believe Italian authorities are free to refile this if they don't like the appeals court ruling?

    Try them again, I say! That'll show 'em. They'll think twice before becoming scientists in Italy.

    • Let's hope they also overturn the Amanda Knox conviction. The evidence against her is rather weak. It appears she did lie, but perhaps because she was scared and was trying not to get framed by spinning her story. Reduce her sentence to lying in court, which she already spent the time for, anyhow.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        She's already publicly stated that she will never return to the Italian court system. Currently she's a reporter for a small newspaper.

    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      If that trial of that American girl for murder, its overturn, and its refiling is any indication, then yes, it may be possible.

      I think that if they do refile though, it'll give incentive for scientists and other intellectuals to move, and with the EU rules allowing one from a member-state to live anywhere within the EU, it would probably be an easier choice to leave if one's work could be interpreted this way.
      • Frankly, I don't know why anyone lives in Italy. With the EU free movement rules, it's a wonder the whole damned country didn't pick up and move to Germany

        • Because the Turks were in the way?

          • by Anonymous Coward

            ONce again, the Ottoman Empire gets the blame! My scimitars are vibrating out frustration every time our great Empire is blamed for the scuffles between the Christians in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

        • You act as if it is a problem with their government, and not a cultural problem with the Italian people.

          In any case, the Italian court sense of morality is flawed (or their legal system doesn't fit with morality...). The geologists have a moral obligation to not harm, not to save, though saving the town would have been admirable.
          • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

            Their argument was that the geologists said that the risk was low, which then caused harm because people trusted them and didn't prepare for the earthquake. If they had stayed quiet they would not have been blamed, but they actually made a prediction in language that conveyed some certainty.

            If there is a lesson here it's that if you are not 100% sure and lives are at risk you should err on the side of caution.

            • by jafiwam ( 310805 )

              Their argument was that the geologists said that the risk was low, which then caused harm because people trusted them and didn't prepare for the earthquake. If they had stayed quiet they would not have been blamed, but they actually made a prediction in language that conveyed some certainty.

              If there is a lesson here it's that if you are not 100% sure and lives are at risk you should err on the side of caution.

              Do you ever travel by airplane? Did you know a NON ZERO number of planes crash every year? And, by getting on a plane you take a risk of getting shredded and burned in a crash?

              Plane travel, despite the possible end-game, is still VERY SAFE.

              Gonna try to throw me in jail now if you get in a crash? Idiot?

        • by cpotoso ( 606303 )
          Have you eaten in Italy vs. in Germany? Enough said.
          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            Absolutely! Go Germany every day of the week!

            I have been to both countries multiple times and the germans win on food and beer every single time. They lose horribly on the wine though.

            • German beer - surprisingly - doesn't hold a candle against british, belgian and lately dutch craft beers. Seriously...

              • Times must have changed then. I lived in the UK in the early 2000s and I never managed to get on with the beers there.

                I have always liked the pale German beers. I was back there in 2012 as part of a multi-country trip and I loved the food.

                Truth be told though I am not the biggest beer drinker so it is lost on me. I prefer my wine.

              • German beer - surprisingly - doesn't hold a candle against british, belgian and lately dutch craft beers. Seriously...

                And yet the "best beer in the world" comes from California. Seriously...

                We're better at wine, we're better at beer, we're better at cheese. The only thing we're not better at is modesty, as proven by all our nudist camps. Or paying our bills, but you red states are sucking down our tax money hardcore for stuff we can't even afford.

              • by knarf ( 34928 )

                Well, no. German beer is different, not worse. They have their own traditions which they follow, often with religious fervour. While this limits the diversity in beer types, it does not diminish the quality. There are many good beers to be had in Germany which you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

            • by cpotoso ( 606303 )
              You are certifiably insane :)
              • I try to be. I just love their food. A love things like the venison and the boar. Their Schnitzels and sausages and their heavy heavy breads.

                It just sits well with me.

                Perhaps as well a big factor is that my experiences in Germany have always been positive. I have always got on well with the people and the place. My experiences in Italy have left a lot to be desired. To the point that on one of our trips through Italy we decided after a week we had had enough and drove to Austria for a break.

                • by cpotoso ( 606303 )
                  Good explanation. I think italian food is incredibly better, but the way they treat you in Italy leaves a lot to be desired. I remember in the old days pre-Euro, that we exchanged USD to all sorts of currencies and only in Italy we felt they were trying to always get the best of us... We had similar negative experiences in the Czech republic some 3 years ago.
                  • I did a 10 week motorcycle trip around Europe with my now wife. We camped our way from Spain to Greece and every where in between. In Greece I got horribly horribly lost and asked for directions from some construction guys upgrading a road. When I couldn't understand their directions due to language barriers they jumped in a car and said follow us. They drove 20 minutes out of their way to get me to the next town.

                    In Hungry I broke the charger for our digital camera. I walked into an electronic shop and

    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Monday November 10, 2014 @09:41PM (#48356149) Homepage

      Unlike the US system, I believe Italian authorities are free to refile this if they don't like the appeals court ruling?

      I can't speak with 100% certainty of Italy, but generally here in Europe they can not refile. However the trial process is not ended until neither side wants to appeal or the appeal possibilities are exhausted. That means you can get acquitted at trial court and the prosecutor appeals, acquitted at appeals court and the prosecutor appeals, the supreme court might say the law was applied wrong and remand it back to the appeals court where you're ultimately convicted. I guess the idea is that a higher court will do a more thorough review and thus its judgement is more valid than the lower court, even if it's to your disadvantage. If you get acquitted and the appeal limit which here is two weeks expires then that is final even if they find the murder weapon with your prints on it three weeks later.

      I'll use a gun analogy since that'll probably appeal to US folks. The first trial is like a hip shot, asking both parties "Are you both in agreement with this ruling?" and if both agree then okay. Second trial they take a good aim and ask "Are you still disputing this ruling?" and if yes they put a sniper rifle on a bench and say "This is going to hit so dead center as possible, final ruling. No more appeals." as opposed to the US system where if you can fool one judge once you're off the hook, no matter how ill considered and legally unsound that judgement was. I think we still acquit more people than in the US, there you get really slammed for using your day in court instead of taking the plea bargain, even if you don't really think you're guilty.

      • We like it that way here.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Plea bargains are a legal abomination. The fact you can get a traumatized guy who came home and found his wife strangled by a burglar and say "Take the plea bargain and get 20 years in jail for something you do, or risk capital punishment if you cant convince the jury your innocent.

        That is *fucked*, because so many people who probavbly could have proved their innocence will take the 20 years rather than risk getting slain by the state.

      • by bsolar ( 1176767 )
        In Italy it is exactly as you explained for Europe: there are 3 levels of judgement and the sentence is not definitive until either the appeal is not filed in due time or the last level is reached. The first appeal is basically a new process within the scope of the appealed matters: in the second and last appeal evidence cannot be re-examined, only wheter the law was followed correctly, but if the court finds issues it can rule than the whole trial needs to be re-done from scratch...
    • This is why all the smart Italians already live in the United States.

  • by lesincompetent ( 2836253 ) on Monday November 10, 2014 @08:02PM (#48355513)
    Will you ever get it right? Will you ever get the fucking title right?
    They did not fail to predict.
    They said we (yes, i was there at the time) could stay home since the likelihood of a strong earthquake was not heightened by the preceeding MONTHS-long swarm.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I'm glad someone pointed this out. I don't know why no one can get this right. There is a huge difference between failing to predict something would happen, and predicting that something IS NOT going to happen.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 10, 2014 @08:51PM (#48355839)

        But that's not what they said. They said the risk had not changed because of the earthquake swarm. That's very different from saying there's no risk. No sane scientist would say there was no risk of earthquakes anywhere in Italy. It's a tectonically active area. There is ALWAYS a risk.

        It's like saying that an earthquake isn't going to happen in California tomorrow. NOBODY is going to say that for any reason, because there is no reason why one couldn't happen tomorrow no matter what happened today, earthquake swarm or not.

        Large commercial airplane crashes are also rare. If there was a crash of a small plane yesterday, would you say that the risk of a major plane crash today was increased? There's no reason to expect any link. If someone asked a flight attendant "In light of the small plane that crashed at this airport yesterday, is the risk of a major plane crash today increased?" They'd probably say "no". That doesn't mean they'd say there is no risk. People might be worried because the thought of a plane crash was foremost in their thoughts thanks to the previous day's events. But there's no *rational* reason to expect an increased risk.

        So if the plane crashed, would you sue the flight attendant for manslaughter for misleading the passenger into thinking there was no risk? No, you'd say the passenger was not listening carefully.

        Why is this so hard to understand?

        • Why is this so hard to understand?

          Because they did not sit there and say that the risk had not changed and there was no way to know if there would be an earthquake or not. If they had kept saying that or just never had their press conference to begin with, they would have been fine. In previous /. stories on there, there were the transcripts of the public meeting. They started off by saying that there was no way to tell if there was any way to tell if there would be an earthquake or not, but under the pressure of public questioning to answe

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Vihai ( 668734 )


      You may repeat as many times you want that but you may easilly deduct from the 1st grade conviction that if the earthquake did not happen they would not be indicted and their behaviour would have been considered appropriate.

      It's easy to point out the wrong information *after* the facts....

      What they said was that the seismic swarm was not indicative of a strong earthquake coming. So, if the population was fine before the long seismic swarm they do not have any reason to be more alarmed than usual and thus th
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 10, 2014 @08:35PM (#48355757)

      "could stay home since the likelihood of a strong earthquake was not heightened by the preceeding MONTHS-long swarm."

      And that was, and still is, the correct scientific conclusion. A conclusion supported by thousands of scientists world-wide: the occurrence of the earthquake swarm neither increased, nor decreased, the probability of a major earthquake. What part of "we can't predict the timing of major earthquakes" are you failing to understand?

      If anyone was at fault it was municipal authorities who let people continue to live in centuries-old substandard buildings when they knew that someday, eventually, a major quake would happen just as it had happened previously in L'Aquila over the centuries. The earthquake swarm was irrelevant to that risk, which was still there as always. When the scientists told people to go home, it was go home to the same non-zero risk of a major quake that you face every day you live there.

    • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Monday November 10, 2014 @09:36PM (#48356111)

      Will you ever get it right? Will you ever get the fucking title right?
        They did not fail to predict.
        They said we (yes, i was there at the time) could stay home since the likelihood of a strong earthquake was not heightened by the preceeding MONTHS-long swarm.

      And the distinction is?

      If there was a well established method for predicting earthquakes that they ignored. Sure, fine then.
      But there's no current way to predict earthquakes that isn't better than a divining rod. So you have to fall back on statistics which say you're probably safer staying home. Thousands of people tracking half way across the country are more likely to get hurt on the road than in an earthquake at home.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Sorry, I think the conviction was ridiculous but the scientists don't get off scot free either. They said reassuring things in public that they shouldn't have, and I think a fair bit of ego got in the way; scientists do have egos too.

        • they didn't say a damn thing, the government official reinterpreted their words and said on their behalf.

      • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday November 10, 2014 @11:57PM (#48356761) Homepage Journal

        And the distinction is?

        The distinction is that they didn't know if it was safer or not, so they should have said "we don't know" in the most reassuring way possible. Instead they tried to look smarter than they were and ended up being badly wrong.

        • How do you know they ended up being badly wrong?

          Do you have some information that shows that small earthquake swarms lead to a greater chance of a big earthquake?

    • And they were exactly right to do so. There is no scientifically accepted method to reliably predict earthquakes. There no scientifically accepted method to reliably predict increases in major earthquake risk over short periods of time. Period.

      I work in the property & casualty insurance field. You seem to think that these seismologists should have known about some sort of method to detect an increased risk of a major earthquake. Can you tell me what this method is?

      Seriously, if you could give my em

      • :) fuck, if the insurance providers don't think there's a reliable way, then yeah... there's no fucking way to predict earthquakes.

        When real money gets involved, all the bullshit falls away.

  • As a scientist, I can breathe a sigh of relief: I can finally go back to not double-chorking my results!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Who in their right mind would judge them for a natural occurrence... It might be their job, but they aren't Gods either.

    • they could have gone to the Pope and asked him to have a chat with his employer and ask whether the earthquake would happen.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The main problem was that they denied the risk of an earthquake.

    The problem started when a hobby earthquake guy watched measurements and noticed increased activity. He then wrote online about increased stress and that a big earthquake was imminent. People panicked and started fleeing the city. The later convicted people then showed up in public as national experts to tell people that there would not be an earthquake, people should return home and resume normal life. The earthquake then hit less than a week.

  • What pop stars were they pretending to be instead of doing their jobs?
  • The scientists did not stand accused of failing to warn against an earthquake. Not at all. Legend.

    They were accused to have encouraged the town of Aquila to disregard threatening tremors and stay safely at home.

    The town followed 'their' recommendation against the century old habits in an earthquake-prone region to run out and wait in the open air. Result was more then 300 deads.

    The appeal court has decided that the fatal recommendations did not come from the scientists but from the inept, corrupt, opportuni

  • Actually the summary is an invention. They were accused of stating that there was no possibility of harm, that people should have remained at home. I.e.: they released false and fatally flawed recommendations for political reasons. It was well known that the region was at risk due to historical evidence.
  • Versus Three Thousand Years Ago.

    We all know would have happened to false prophets!

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