In October, six seismic experts and one government official were found guilty in Italy. They were charged with manslaughter and sentenced for six years to prison for the deaths that resulted from the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
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The Court found that they 7 men had failed to issue the appropriate warnings that would have predicted the incoming earthquake. Scientists around the world condemned the decision, and many spoke out against holding scientists criminally responsible for any predictions, suggesting it could make them less willing to speak out on future public safety decisions.
In early 2009, L’Aquila was shaken by months of minor tremors, culminating in a larger 4.1-magnitude quake. Research has suggested that small quakes raise the risk of a large quake by almost a thousand times, although the probability is low at around 1 percent per day, falling rapidly over time.
However, when the Italian commission met to assess the likelihood of more quakes, one member – the government official – went on record to reassure frightened reisdents that small quake were normal, and could even ease some siesmic pressure. Days later, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake killed over 300 people. Prosecutors allege that the information provided caused 29 of those deaths.
Geologists and scientist who study seismic activity who sit on similarly styled advisory panels in the United States are protected from prosecution by law.