An ex-school resource officer accused of failing to confront a shooter who killed 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 was acquitted Thursday of child neglect and negligence.
Scot Peterson, a 60-year-old now-fired Broward County sheriff’s deputy, was armed with a handgun when he arrived on the scene of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting. Prosecutors argued he took cover instead of confronting the gunman and “chose to run,” putting his own life first. His defense team said Peterson was being scapegoated, and in the chaos of the shooting, he couldn’t have known where shots were coming from.
Peterson was charged with seven counts of felony child neglect for four students killed and three injured in a classroom building, three counts of misdemeanor culpable negligence for a teacher and adult student killed and a teacher injured, and perjury for allegedly lying to investigators under oath about his actions and understanding that day.
He was acquitted on all counts after more than 19 hours of jury deliberations over four days. Peterson wept and put his head down on the table in front of him as the judge read the verdict in court Thursday afternoon. He hugged his legal team and supporters after court adjourned and some in the room clapped, and cheered, or cried.
“I got my life back,” Peterson told reporters outside the courtroom afterward. “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for so long, endless nights.”
“Don’t anybody ever forget this was a massacre on February 14. The only person to blame was that monster… Everybody did the best they could. We did the best we could with the information we had,” Peterson said.
To the families of victims, he said, “I would love to talk to them… If they need to know the truth of what occurred, and not only my actions, but what occurred, I’m there for them.”
Father of victim: Peterson should be ‘haunted’
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was one of the first victims killed in the shooting, said he didn’t understand how a jury could acquit Peterson.
“His inaction contributed to the shock and devastation of students and teachers at that school. His inaction contributed to the pain of our entire community,” Montalto told reporters outside the courtroom. “He didn’t do the right thing. He ran away.”
While Montalto was speaking to reporters, cheers could be heard from supporters of Peterson down the hallway, spurring Montalto to remark sarcastically on their “good sportsmanship.”
“For our families, we still feel he should be haunted every day by his failure to act,” he said.
Montalto said he still supports school resource officers and believes they are “vital” to protecting children and teachers but that Peterson failed in that duty. Asked about Peterson’s offer to speak with families, Montalto said: “No. No. Bring me my daughter back.”
“There’s no point,” added Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke died next to Gina.
What happened in Parkland shooting
The massacre in Parkland, Florida, was the deadliest U.S. mass shooting to ever go to trial, resulting in a life sentence for Nikolas Cruz after jurors could not agree on a death penalty. Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members in his rampage in the school before fleeing among students evacuating.
According to security camera footage, Peterson left his office about 100 yards away and about 36 seconds after the shooting began at the school’s 1200 building. He rode in a cart with two unarmed, civilian security guards and arrived at the building a minute later. He wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.
Peterson got out of the cart near the doorway to the first-floor hallway, while Cruz was at the opposite end of the hallway firing an AR-15. Peterson did not open the door. Instead, he backed away and took cover in the alcove of a neighboring building with his gun drawn and stayed there for 40 minutes, about 35 minutes after the shooting ended.
Meanwhile, inside, Cruz went on to shoot at least 70 more rounds as he climbed to the upper floors. Cruz reached the third floor where he killed and injured students and adults, the basis of charges against Peterson, 73 seconds after the deputy arrived and took cover instead of entering.
“You’ve got to get in there and you’ve got to find the shooter,” prosecutor Steven Klinger said during his opening statement earlier this month.
Prosecutors Christopher Killoran, Kristen Gomes and Steven Klinger presented security videos and testimony of police officers, teachers, security guards, and students over two weeks of testimony to back up their argument that Peterson knew where the shots were coming from but chose not to confront the shooter. What he heard and saw was the key issue in the trial.
Prosecutors: Peterson was a ‘caregiver’ of the children killed, injured
In order to be found guilty of child neglect, Peterson had to have been in a caregiving position over the children who were killed and injured after he arrived on the scene of the massacre that day. Caregivers are guilty of felony neglect if they fail to make a “reasonable effort” to protect children or don’t provide necessary care.
Defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh argued Peterson was not responsible for feeding or clothing the students, so he was not their caregiver.
But Gomes, the prosecutor, said every parent who dropped their child off that morning expected Peterson to protect the students.
“When the defendant ran, he left behind an unrestricted killer who spent the next four minutes and 15 seconds wandering the halls at his leisure. Because when Scot Peterson ran, he left them in a building with a predator unchecked,” Gomes told the jury.
Peterson was trained to enter the building, prosecutors said
Peterson was a deputy for 32 years and had been at Stoneman Douglas for nine years after spending 19 years at other schools. He retired shortly after the shooting and was later fired retroactively.
During his time on the job, Peterson had undergone training exercises on how to stop an active shooter several times, Broward County Lt. Col. Sam Samaroo testified. Samaroo said Peterson was trained that even if he was alone, he would have to confront a shooter without waiting for backup.
“The more time the shooter has, the more victims he can kill,” Samaroo added. “Our goal is to stop the killing by any possible means. Time is our enemy.”
Sunrise Police Lt. Craig Cardinale also testified that Peterson would have seen victims’ bodies if he had opened the door to the 1200 building and looked inside instead of backing away.
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Defense argued officer didn’t know where shots were coming from
Peterson’s defense hinged around the argument that he couldn’t confront the killer because he couldn’t pinpoint the shooter’s location. He has said he couldn’t tell where gunshots were coming from because of echoes between buildings and told investigators after the shooting that he believed the shots were being fired from outside. He said he heard “two, three” shots, which is the basis of the perjury charge.
His defense team called other law enforcement officials and students, who testified that they were also unsure where the shooting was coming from or thought it was happening outdoors. Deputy Michael Kratz testified he thought the shooting was happening on the football field when he arrived.
“I thought it was coming from everywhere around me. It sounded like it was under me, above me, all around me,” student Ruby Harris, who had exited a building near the 1200 building, testified.
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The defense also pointed to glitches with the sheriff’s office’s communications system that hampered Peterson’s ability to hear what other law enforcement deputies were seeing and hearing.
Eiglarsh, Peterson’s attorney, said he did everything he could with the information he had, and acted heroically by staying put to transmit information. “He was damned no matter what,” Eiglarsh said.
Peterson did not testify during the trial.
First trial of its kind in US history
The National Association of School Resource Officers has said it is not aware of any other criminal prosecution of a law enforcement officer in the country for failing to act during a school shooting.
In a similar case, officers in Uvalde, Texas, are under investigation after they didn’t confront the gunman who killed 19 kids and two teachers at Robb Elementary School last May. No charges have been filed against law enforcement officers in the Uvalde case.
Eiglarsh, Peterson’s attorney, said after the verdict on Thursday that the outcome was a victory for every law enforcement officer in the country, “who does the best they can every single day.”
“How dare prosecutors try to second guess the actions of honorable, decent police officers,” Eiglarsh said.
Contributing: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; The Associated Press