Ex-deputy Scot Peterson found not guilty of all charges in Parkland mass shooting

South Florida SunSentinel | By Rafael Olmeda | June 29, 2023

Former School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, the only person other than the gunman to face charges in the 2018 Parkland massacre when he was accused of failing to rush into the building to confront the mass shooter, has been found not guilty on all charges.

After the first not guilty verdict was read, Peterson placed his head on the table and sobbed while being consoled by his attorney Mark Eiglarsh. Peterson’s wife also wept in the courtroom gallery.

“I got my life back after 4½ years,” Peterson said outside the courtroom. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

Prosecutors left the courthouse without commenting.

But Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor in a prepared statement said the case was one-of-a-kind in the nation’s history and countered those who have made Peterson’s case a “political” debate.”

“Scot Peterson’s inaction and the misinformation he provided to law enforcement officers had a dire impact on the children and adults who died or were injured on the third floor of the 1200 Building,” Pryor wrote. “He stood by, leaving an unrestricted killer to spend 4 minutes and 15 seconds wandering the halls at leisure — firing close to 70 rounds and killing or injuring ten of the 34 children and educators who bore the brunt of the massacre. The evidence showed he stood in one safe spot for more than 40 minutes while the victims on the third floor were killed and injured and while other law enforcement officers took action.”

Peterson, 60, had faced six counts of child neglect with great bodily harm, one count of child neglect without great harm, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury.

The case was closely watched — Peterson is the only person other than gunman Nikolas Cruz charged in the shooting that took the lives of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, wounding 17 more. Peterson is also the first law enforcement officer charged with child neglect as a “caregiver,” a role that legally applies to parents, babysitters, teachers and even a kidnapper in one unusual case.

Police officers have not been listed among caregivers, but Peterson was not a first responder summoned to the scene to deal with the unfolding crisis. Prosecutors say he was a caregiver because he was the school resource officer assigned specifically to protect the students of the Parkland high school.

“We are extremely pleased with the outcome today,” defense attorney Eiglarsh said. “It’s not just a victory for Scot, but it’s a victory for every law enforcement officer in the country. How dare prosecutors try to second-guess police officers?

“It’s extremely important to remember how we got here … former Sheriff Scott Israel held a press conference without ever speaking to my client.” Because of Israel’s “reckless, selfish, political actions, (Peterson) had to endure four years of heartache and misery.”

But “jurors made it clear from their verdict … the system works,” Eiglarsh said. “If you’re falsely accused, the system works and they will eventually get it right.”

After the trial ended, Peterson said, “it was a massacre on Feb. 14 … and the only person to blame is that monster,” referring to Nikolas Cruz, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

When he arrived at the 1200 building, the scene of the shooting, Peterson was armed and standing 10 feet from the east entrance. Cruz, the gunman, was 70 yards away, inside the building approaching the west entrance, where an unarmed man determined to confront him raced into the building. Cruz shot that man, football coach Aaron Feis, who fell dead on the spot.

The shots that killed Feis were the first that Peterson heard, and according to his lawyer, they he could not tell whether those shots came from inside the building or outside. Peterson, armed but not wearing a bulletproof vest, ran from the 1200 building and took cover nearby, reporting shots fired and calling a code red for the Parkland campus.

Prosecutors say if Peterson had run into the building, he would have seen the chaos on the first floor and been in a better position to find and confront, engage or distract the shooter.

Peterson has also been named in numerous lawsuits filed by the families of the victims and chastised publicly by everyone from former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel to former President Donald Trump, who all labeled him a coward who failed to do his job.

But Peterson has said, in interviews and through his attorney, that he took cover because the shots could have been coming from outside the 1200 building. The sound of gunfire echoing off nearby buildings created confusion among other responding officers and witnesses, some of whom appeared to believe the shots came from as far away as the football field on the other side of the campus.

The child neglect charges allege that Peterson allowed harm to come to the teachers and children on the third floor of the building. By the time Peterson arrived outside the 1200 building, the damage on the first floor was done, so no charges are associated with the deaths or injuries that took place there. No one was killed or injured on the second floor.

Family members of some of the victims have attended parts of the trial, characterizing it as a referendum on accountability. Last year, the gunman was sentenced to life in prison after

If convicted, Peterson would face the possibility of decades in prison, though such a sentence is unlikely for someone who spent 32 unblemished years as a law enforcement officer with no prior criminal record. He would, in all likelihood, lose his pension.

Deliberations began late Monday and ran through Tuesday before resuming Wednesday morning.

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