Italian scientists on trial for failing to predict deadly quake

A rescuer looks for survivors in the remains of a collapsed building on April 8, 2009 in the Abruzzo capital L'Aquila.
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(CBS News) A verdict is expected Monday in Italy in a closely watched trial that has unfolded over the last year. The prosecution is seeking to hold a group of Italian scientists accountable for not adequately warning residents about an earthquake in the town of L'Aquila.

The trial has provoked outrage within the Italian scientific community, which argues that it is unreasonable to take legal action against people for failing to do what seismologists say is impossible -- that is, to definitively predict a large-scale quake. The seven scientists involved stand charged with manslaughter for failing to predict the quake and alerting residents to evacuate their homes. If convicted, each scientist could face up to four years in prison.

According to CBS News' Allen Pizzey, the prosecution has argued that data analysis was done improperly and that in spite of good data, the scientists failed to give adequate warning that a major earthquake could be imminent.

The son of one of the Italian victims told Pizzey, "My father died because he listened to the state."

The quake, which occurred in 2009, killed 309 people, left 1,500 injured, and 65,000 people homeless. Following the disaster, the historic center of L'Aquila had to be abandoned. Today, three and a half years later, buildings are still held together by scaffolding and steel girdles, and many historic structures await demolition, too damaged to be reconstructed.

The city sits atop a major fault line and large numbers of small tremors -- called "swarms" -- are common in the area. There were reportedly several "swarms" leading up to the 2009 quake. Some have suggested that the swarms should have been a clear warning sign.

Dr. Tom Jordan, the director of the southern California Earthquake Center, told Pizzey that the trial sets a bad precedent of holding scientists to unrealistic standards.

"This trial has raised huge concerns within the scientific community because here you have a number of scientists who are simply doing their job being prosecuted for criminal manslaughter and I think that scares all of us who are involved in risk communication."

Several L'Aquila residents have also filed civil suits and are reportedly less concerned with the accused receiving jail time and more interested in demanding more and better information about future earthquakes.