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Jury finds Scot Peterson not guilty in Parkland school shooting

Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson reacts as he is found not guilty on all charges at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday, June 29, 2023.
Amy Beth Bennett (AP)
Pool South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson reacts as he is found not guilty on all charges at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday, June 29, 2023.

A Broward jury on Thursday found Scot Peterson not guilty of neglecting his duties as a school resource officer during the mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The jury of six men and women acquitted him of felony child neglect for the children killed and injured on the third floor of the school building, and acquitted him of misdemeanor culpable negligence for the adults shot on the third floor, including a teacher and an adult student who died.

"I got my life back after four and half years," said Peterson following the verdict.

"Don't anyone forget this was a massacre," he said. "The only person to blame was that monster. Everybody did the best we could with the information we had."

Fred Guttenberg, whose teenage daughter Jaime was killed in the mass shooting, slammed Peterson for his celebratory reaction to the jury's verdict.

“Instead of celebrating, he should have thought of Jaime and the reality that she made it to within one second of survival,” he said.

“While Peterson and his attorney Mark Eiglarsh celebrate him getting his life back, they must always remember that my daughter was murdered,” he said in a series of tweets.

Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter Gina in the shooting, told reporters he was baffled and disappointed by the jury's decision.

"His inaction contributed to the pain of our entire community and we don't understand how this jury looked at the evidence that was presented and found him not guilty," he said.

In a statement, Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor, whose office prosecuted the case, condemned Peterson for not doing his job and criticized those who sought to bring “politics” into the trial.

“To those who have tried to make this political, I say: It is not political to expect someone to do their job,” he said in a lengthy statement. “Especially when it’s the vital job of being a school resource officer — an armed law enforcement officer with special duties and responsibilities to the children and staff members they are contracted to protect.”

He said Peterson’s "inaction and the misinformation" allowed "an unrestricted killer to spend 4 minutes and 15 seconds wandering the halls at leisure."

The jury deliberated for 19 hours over four days.

As the judge ready the jury's verdict on each charge, Peterson cried and embraced his attorney.

Peterson faced a lengthy prison sentence had he been convicted of all charges, including multiple counts of felony child negligence. He also could have lost his $104,000 annual pension.

The central question was what Peterson knew and heard during the shooting and what he did — or did not do — based on that knowledge. The shooting lasted six minutes.

READ MORE: Prosecutors face unprecedented trial with Parkland ex-deputy Scot Peterson

Peterson arrived at the 1200 building after the shooter killed 11 people on the first floor of the building. He heard shots fired and ran to a safe position and stayed there for 48 minutes, occasionally using his radio to try to relay information to other law enforcement.

Peterson, 60, was the first U.S. law enforcement officer to be prosecuted for his alleged actions and inaction during a mass shooting at a school.

The jury's verdict was seen by legal experts as a case that will set a precedent on how responding officers can be held legally accountable for their actions during a mass shooting.

Peterson's defense

In his closing argument, Mark Eiglarsh, Peterson's lawyer, told jurors that Peterson did all that he could during the mass shooting.

His case began and ended with the assertion that what happened on the day of the shooting was the fault of the shooter, not Peterson. He argued that the radio calls Peterson made and the "tactical position" he took outside of the 1200 building were "heroic."

"He doesn't know that there's one shooter. Nobody knows that. We have the luxury in this courtroom of hindsight," Eiglarsh told jurors.

Witnesses called by Eiglarsh described the confusion of that day, and said they couldn't pinpoint where shots were coming from either. Some also spoke positively to Peterson's character as a school resource officer.

Eiglarsh maintained that Peterson was a scapegoat for larger systematic failings of the Broward Sheriffs Office and other public officials. He argued that the most relevant of those failings was the faulty communication system between the sheriff's office and other local police departments. This break in communication delayed Peterson's response because he did not have the information other officers had, Eiglarsh said.

"He was sacrificed. He was thrown under the bus," Eiglarsh said of Peterson, who was retroactively fired from the Broward Sheriff's Office after he resigned following the shooting. Peterson would have been blamed even if he left his "tactical position of cover" outside of the building, Eiglarsh said.

"He was damned no matter what. He couldn't win. Facts don't matter when your sacrificed."

READ MORE: Broward district to pay $40k more for each school cop

Prosecuter's case against Peterson

Prosecutors had an unprecedented case on their hands from the start. They had to prove that Peterson was not only negligent in his inaction, but that he had a duty to protect those inside the school as a caregiver.

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.

Prosecutors told jurors that Peterson ran from the building, considering only his life and abandoned his training as a police officer. They called witnesses who were injured in the shooting and other law enforcement who responded to the shooting, along with many who rushed into the 1200 building despite orders not to do so.

Prosecutors guided jurors through a detailed recounting of the shooting, weaving a timeline of the shooting with appeals to emotion — at one point reading out the names of the victims who were on the third floor of the 1200 building.

"He stands there with the knowledge of a 28-year deputy assigned to protecting children, knowing that the number one goal in that moment is move towards the sounds of gunfire," Assistant State Attorney Kristen Gomes told jurors during her closing argument.

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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
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