An unusual criminal case in Italy has caused international confusion and outrage, as a court recently convicted a group of scientists of manslaughter due to an inaccurate earthquake forecast. The case demonstrates the importance of the "mental state" element of a criminal prosecution in the U.S. legal system. Almost any criminal statute includes a mental state, ranging from intent to criminal negligence, in the definition of the crime. Prosecutors must prove that the defendant had the state of mind required by the particular statute on which they are basing their prosecution.
The Italian case arises from an earthquake that struck the town of L'Aquila in April 2009. The town experienced tremors in March, and a local resident, who was not a scientist, reportedly predicted that a much larger earthquake was coming. In response to the ensuing panic, six scientists from the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks responded on March 31 that a major earthquake was "improbable." A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the L'Aquila area on April 6, killing over three hundred people.
Prosecutors charged the six scientists with manslaughter, alleging that they "gave a falsely reassuring statement" that led people to remain in their homes, when they otherwise might have evacuated the area. A group of about five thousand scientists signed a letter to the Italian president stressing that no accurate method exists for predicting earthquakes. The prosecution reportedly responded by arguing that the accuracy of the prediction was not the issue, but rather that the risk of a major earthquake "was not taken seriously enough." A judge convicted the six scientists of "multiple manslaughter" and sentenced them each to six years in prison.
Although this particular case deals with alleged homicide, defined as criminal responsibility for the death of another, the issue of mental state is involved in almost every criminal prosecution. The question of the scientists' alleged mental state, in the context of a prosecution under Texas law, would be critically important. Texas law identifies four types of mental states involved in most criminal offenses. Ranked highest to lowest, they are:
- Intentional, meaning that the defendant consciously desires the outcome of his or her actions;
- Knowing, meaning that the defendant is fully aware of the nature of his or her actions and their results;
- Reckless, meaning that the defendant is aware of a "substantial and unjustifiable risk" of a serious harm, but "consciously disregards" it.
- Criminally negligent, meaning the defendant should be aware of a "substantial and unjustifiable risk" of a serious harm, but fails to recognize it.
The offense of "manslaughter" in Texas requires proof that the defendant acted recklessly, and it is not clear that the Italian case would meet the standard set by Texas law. As the scientists who wrote in support of the defendants noted, no substantially accurate method exists to predict earthquakes, and the defendants contended that they acted in good faith in response to a layperson who was causing public panic. The case is unlikely to have any impact in the U.S., but its impact on other individuals in Italy called to offer predictions on issues such as weather could be profound.
Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.
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