To build his argument against the L'Aquila Seven, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti performed some remarkable pirouettes. Here's one detail from the trial that didn't make it into the final draft of my story:
To further assert that the scientists knew more than they let on, Picuti used an engineer from the US and a geoscientist from Russia as expert witnesses. The two represent extreme minority opinions about risk analysis and earthquake precursors that would be on par with climate change deniers. Not that that was of concern to Picuti. He only needed them to introduce doubt about the thoroughness of the March 31 meeting.
And introduce it they did. The American, a retired engineer who worked for the California Department of Transportation, shared his view that the Great Risk Commission’s assessment had been insufficient. In his opinion, the seven men should have more forcefully warned the residents of L’Aquila to steel themselves for the Big One. The Russian spoke to the idea that a swarm may be a prelude to a mainshock, but his testimony turned into something of a joke. English wasn’t allowed in the courtroom, but there was no Russian-Italian translator. So the Russian spoke in English, but the English-Italian translator kept stumbling over scientific terminology. At times, the defendants were the only people in the room who could accurately translate for the court.
De Bernardinis' comment about "energy discharge," was inexcusable. When I interviewed the other scientists, they were, and remain, furious about it. (De Bernardinis declined to be interviewed for my story.) I still kind of feel for the guy, though, even more so after reading the full transcript of the now-infamous television interview, from which the "energy discharge" line was plucked (~ min. 2:52). It showcases the difficulties of living with and communicating about risk. I had considered including something along these lines in the story:
Even De Berardnins, whose single sentence became such a flashpoint, wasn’t as binary in his thinking as the sound bite suggests. In the rest of that television interview he is lucid about Abruzzo’s seismic hazard and the need to strike a balance between geographic reality and everyday life. “We have to be in a state of attention, without being in a state of anxiety… we have to be ready but at the same time untroubled.” That doesn’t sound like a man bent on deluding people, and even history’s most famous seismologist would have probably cut De Bernardinis some slack:
“[O]ccasionally, a professional man who has a good reputation in other fields is responsible for erroneous statements about earthquake occurrence and earthquake prediction. Even good geologists have been known to fall into such errors." - Charles Richter