Scot Peterson not guilty over Parkland school shooting response
A former sheriff’s deputy has been found not at fault for failing to protect students when a gunman opened fire at a Florida high school in 2018.
Scot Peterson remained outside during the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, close to Miami.
Mr. Peterson, the school’s resource officer, was found not guilty of 11 charges including felony child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury.
The attack, among the deadliest at a US school, saw 17 killed and 17 injured.
Mr. Peterson, 60, put his head in his hands and started crying as the verdicts were read out in court in Fort Lauderdale.
After the verdict, Mr. Peterson told journalists that he would like to converse with the parents of the students who were killed.
“If they need to really know the truth of what occurred… I’ll be there for them,” he said.
But Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of the students murdered, said he continued to blame Mr. Peterson for not trying to stop the shooting.
“His inaction contributed to the shock, the devastation of students and teachers at that school,” Mr Montalto told reporters. “We don’t understand how this jury looked at the evidence that was presented and found him not guilty.”
“All I can say to the members of the jury is: ‘I think your school should hire him to protect your children,'” he said.
The jury heard testimony that when the attack occurred on 14 February 2018, Mr. Peterson, who was armed but was not wearing body armor, stayed in an alcove adjacent to the school building for 30 or 40 minutes until the shooting stopped.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation found he “did absolutely nothing to mitigate” the shooting. Critics, including then-President Donald Trump, branded him a coward.
Mr. Peterson is believed to be the first US officer charged with failing to respond to a school shooting, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. He could have faced a sentence of up to 97 years in prison if he had been convicted.
There is no law that requires police officers to put themselves in the line of fire or risk their lives during a shooting, so prosecutors chose to charge him with felony child neglect. The case hinged on whether Mr. Peterson had a legal obligation to try to stop the killer.
But the defense focused on Mr. Peterson’s long career said that he was confused about where the shots were coming from, and argued that he could not be considered a “caregiver” under a law typically used to prosecute parents or daycare providers when children are hurt while under their care.
In a statement, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office repeated its contention that Mr. Peterson could have done more to save the victims.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, prosecutors, in this case, have tried to hold an armed school resource officer responsible for not doing his job,” the attorney’s office said.
“As parents, we have an expectation that armed school resource officers – who are under contract to be caregivers to our children – will do their jobs when we entrust our children to them and the schools they guard.”
But Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said it was “ridiculous” to attempt to legally designate Mr. Peterson a caregiver for hundreds of students.
Mr. Jarvis said the case had the potential to set a precedent for whether law enforcement – or even civilian school officials – will face prosecution for failing to confront a gunman.
“The government’s case always was a long shot at best, and clearly the jury saw that Peterson was merely a scapegoat,” Mr. Jarvis said.
“This will make it very unlikely for other prosecutors to bring such a case” in the future, he said.
Gunman Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school, was sentenced in November to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the Parkland attack.
Mr Peterson’s trial came after police officers in Uvalde, Texas also faced criticism for failing to confront a killer.
A report by the Texas Department of Public Safety found a Uvalde police officer could have stopped the attack on Robb Elementary School by shooting the killer before he entered but hesitated while awaiting permission from a supervisor.
More than an hour later, a team of US border patrol agents stormed the school, by which time the gunman had killed 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 others.