The judge's decision raises a frightening but seemingly reasonable prospect: that, under certain circumstances, scientists may be held accountable for placing PR considerations ahead of their basic responsibilities as scientists. It's unclear whether the seven actually did so, but that is the judge's claim.
Prosecutors in the case had requested 4-year prison sentences. In going beyond that term, Billi says that "the guilt of the defendants is certainly severe" and adds that their guilt is accentuated by what he describes as the "conscious and uncritical adherence to the will of the head of the civil protection department," Guido Bertolaso, to carry out what Bertolaso had called a "media operation," which meant that the experts spoke directly with the public rather than via the civil protection department. Billi says that each of the seven commission members played an important role in the meeting and that they worked together as a collective unit.
I'm not in a position to judge whether the seven scientists did what the judge said they did, but in light of much of the media coverage of the decision, the judge's thinking seems surprisingly sober. In any case, it demonstrates that under certain circumstances the law may hold scientists liable for the quality of their advice, and suggests that they may have a legal, professional responsibility to put evidence and sober analysis before expediency. The decision derives, apparently, from the scientists' failure to meet official responsibilities as members of a government committee--yet there are many other circumstances in which scientists are called on to deliver advice. As scientists take on more roles in setting policy and advising governments on risk, it's easy to envision other circumstances in which they could be held criminally liable for the quality of their work.