A group of six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter by an Italian court today for their role in the preparation of a risk report on seismic activity in L'Aquila, Italy. The report, which was generally regarded as reassuring, was released about a week before an earthquake struck the town, killing over 300 people. Initial reports indicate that the scientists have been sentenced to six years in prison.
The town of L'Aquila sits on a major fault line, and had been struck by several swarms of small magnitude earthquakes. The Italian government had organized a risk-assessment committee, which included seismologists (including the former head of the National Institute of Geophysics) and government officials. In the week before the earthquake struck, the group told the public that the high incidence of smaller earthquakes were not necessarily precursors of a larger quake. They did, however, also mention that earthquakes were unpredictable, and that building codes in the area needed to be adjusted to provide better seismic safety.
Reportedly, one of the Italian government officials took matters a step further, declaring that there was no danger, and suggesting that the smaller earthquakes had relieved stress on the fault.