L'Aquila earthquake scientists' manslaughter convictions overturned

An appeals court has cleared seven experts charged with failing to adequately warn residents of the risk before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

7 convicted of failing to adequatly warn residents before deadly 2009 quake

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi pauses near buildings destroyed by an earthquake in the L'Aquila suburb of Onna April 25, 2009. The earthquake killed more 300 people, leading to charges that experts failed to adequately warn local residents. (Alessandra Tarantino/Reuters)

An appeals court has cleared seven experts charged with failing to adequately warn residents of the risk before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

The court in L'Aquila, the city struck by the 6.3-magnitude quake, on Monday overturned guilty verdicts against the seven saying no crime had been committed. The decision was met by cries of "shame" in the courtroom, packed with quake survivors.

Defense lawyer Franco Coppi expressed understanding for the protests.

"We're satisfied with the decision," Coppi said. But "we are sorry for the families of the victims."

While it cleared the so-called great risks commission of experts, which had issued statements assuring residents after meeting days before the deadly quake, the court upheld a guilty verdict against a civil protection agency official regarding statements he made, and issued a suspended two-year sentence. The verdict's reasoning won't be known for 90 days.

"It's a strange verdict. It overturned everything," said Wania Della Vigna, a lawyer representing 11 of about 30 plaintiffs who claim proof they changed their habits based on the panel's reassurances.

Della Vigna and other lawyers for the plaintiffs indicated they would challenge the decision to Italy's highest court.

The convictions two years ago sent shockwaves through the scientific community, which argued that the charges represented a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.

The head of Italy's geologic institute, Stefano Gresta, said the decision restored "credibility to the entire Italian scientific community."

The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological or disaster experts who made up a risk commission advising the government, were charged with manslaughter and causing bodily harm for giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by L'Aquila residents prior to the quake should have been grounds for a warning.