The former sheriff’s deputy who fled to safety during the Parkland school massacre broke down in court today when a jury found him not guilty.
Former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson wept as the verdicts were read. The jury had deliberated for 19 hours over four days.
Peterson, 60, was charged with seven counts of felony child neglect for four students killed and three wounded. He was also charged with three counts of misdemeanor culpable negligence for the adults shot on the third floor. He also faced a perjury charge for allegedly lying to investigators. The jury Thursday acquitted Peterson of all 11 charges.
The campus deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Peterson had been charged with failing to confront shooter Nikolas Cruz during his six-minute attack inside a three-story 1200 classroom building on February 14, 2018, that left 17 dead.
He could have received nearly 100 years in prison, although a sentence even approaching that length would have been highly unlikely given the circumstances and his clean record. He also could have lost his $104,000 annual pension.
The acquittal concludes the first trial in U.S. history of a law enforcement officer for conduct during an on-campus shooting.
Former Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson was found not guilty
In closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors told jurors that Peterson could have located and stopped Nikolas Cruz as he carried out the attack.
But instead of opening a door, looking in a window or seeking information from fleeing students, he chose to take shelter next to an adjoining building, prosecutor Kristen Gomes said.
That prevented him from confronting Cruz before he reached the third floor, where six of Cruz’s 17 killings were committed.
Even if he hadn’t killed Cruz, his presence would have distracted him, giving students and teachers time to flee or hide, or caused him to surrender or commit suicide, she said.
‘Choose to go in or choose to run? Scot Peterson chose to run,’ Gomes said. ‘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.’
But Peterson’s attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, argued that Peterson is being made a ‘sacrificial lamb’ for failures by elected officials and administrators.
He said the evidence proves Peterson’s insistence that the gunshots’ echoes prevented him from pinpointing Cruz’s location is the truth and Peterson did everything he could under the circumstances. Criticizing his actions now is ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’ using facts that were unknown to Peterson in real time.
He said the only person responsible for what happened that day is ‘that monster’ Cruz. He said two dozen students, teachers and others testified that they also could not pinpoint where the shots were coming from – some of them from inside the building where the shooting happened.
‘This whole hearing-based prosecution is flawed and offensive,’ Eiglarsh said. He said Peterson acted heroically during the shooting, staying put to transmit whatever information he had and would have charged into the building if he knew where the shooter was. But if he did that or went elsewhere without solid information and the shooter then killed others where Peterson had left, he would have been prosecuted for that.
‘He was damned no matter what,’ Eiglarsh said.
Peterson, the school’s on-campus deputy, is being tried for felony child neglect and other charges for the deaths and injuries on the third floor. He is not charged in connection with the deaths of 11 people killed on the first floor before he reached the building. It is the first time a U.S. law enforcement officer has been tried in connection with a school shooting.
Peterson, 60, sometimes looked down and shook his head during the prosecution’s presentation. Several members of the victims’ families glared at Eiglarsh from the gallery during his argument.
Prosecutors, during their two-week presentation, called to the witness stand students, teachers and law enforcement officers who testified about the horror they experienced and how they knew where Cruz was. Some said they knew for certain the shots were coming from the 1200 building. Prosecutors also called a training supervisor who testified Peterson did not follow protocols for confronting an active shooter.
Eiglarsh during his two-day presentation called several deputies who arrived during the shooting and students and teachers who testified they did not think the shots were coming from the 1200 building. Peterson did not testify.
Eiglarsh also emphasized the failure of the sheriff’s radio system during the attack, which limited what Peterson heard from arriving deputies. Gomes said the radio system worked well during the critical first minutes of the attack, with Peterson being the one with the best information as he was within feet of the building.
The jury will also have to decide whether Peterson was a caregiver to the juvenile students who died and were wounded on the third floor – a legal requirement for him to be convicted of child neglect. Florida law defines a caregiver as ‘a parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child´s welfare.’ Caregivers are guilty of felony neglect if they fail to make a ‘reasonable effort’ to protect children or don´t provide necessary care.
The six jury members deliberated for about 90 minutes Monday before adjourning until Tuesday.
Gomes said every parent who dropped their child off that morning expected Peterson to protect the students. Eiglarsh said Peterson was not responsible for feeding or clothing the students, so he was not their caregiver.
Security videos show that 36 seconds after Cruz’s attack began, Peterson exited his office about 100 yards (92 meters) from the 1200 building and jumped into a cart with two unarmed civilian security guards. They arrived at the building a minute later.
Peterson got out of the cart near the east doorway to the first-floor hallway. Cruz was at the hallway´s opposite end, firing his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
Peterson, who was not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, did not open the door. Instead, he took cover 75-feet (23 meters) away in the alcove of a neighboring building, his gun still drawn. He stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other police officers had stormed the building.
Gomes’ colleague, Chris Killoran, told the jury during the prosecution’s rebuttal argument that if Peterson truly didn’t know the shooter’s location and wanted to find him, he would have looked into the 1200 building as he was only feet away.
Peterson faces up to nearly 100 years in prison if convicted, although because of his clean record a sentence anywhere near that length is highly unlikely. He could also lose his $104,000 annual pension. He had spent nearly three decades working at schools, including nine years at Stoneman Douglas. He retired shortly after the shooting and was then fired retroactively.
Cruz´s jury could not unanimously agree he deserved the death penalty. The 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student was then sentenced to life in prison .