Scot Peterson Was Found Not Guilty of All Charges in the Parkland Shooting

More than five years after the former Parkland, Fla., school resource officer was labeled a “coward” for not doing enough to stop the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 17 people were killed and 17 others were injured while he stood at a safe distance, a South Florida jury acquitted Scot Peterson of child-neglect and culpable negligence charges on Thursday.

Peterson’s trial, the first of its kind in the United States, concluded with final arguments on Monday. The jury debated for more than 19 hours over four days at the Broward County Courthouse. During the bloodiest high school shooting in American history, which occurred on February 14, 2018, Peterson, 60, was accused of standing by and doing nothing to stop the shooter.

Peterson, who was dubbed the Coward of Broward” by some of the victims’ families and former coworkers, was charged with seven counts of felony child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence in relation to the 10 people who were injured or killed in the attack on the third floor of the 1200 building at the high school.

Peterson, who was facing over 100 years in jail for each act of child neglect, sobbed as the judge read “not guilty” to each count. Peterson reportedly told reporters, “I’ve got my life back,” when the verdict was handed down. The nearly two-week trial took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, fewer than 30 miles from the 2018 assault scene.

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Peterson did not testify. His lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, based his defense on the statements of deputies, teachers, and students who testified that they did not hear the rounds originating from the direction they were fired.

Peterson has maintained for a long time that there was nothing else he could have done to avoid the shooting, citing a lack of information, the failure of the sheriff’s radio system, and the echo of gunfire as reasons why he was unable to pinpoint the origin of the shooting.

The prosecutors tried to sacrifice and pursue baseless charges against a man who did everything he could with the limited information he had under the most stressful of circumstances,” Eiglarsh told The Washington Post after the verdict.

The prosecution presented testimony from other law enforcement officials, teachers, and students who stated they were surprised that Peterson did not know where Nikolas Cruz was firing and “chose to run.” Broward County Detective John Curcio, who headed the investigation into the massacre, was another witness summoned by state attorneys.

Scot Peterson Was Found Not Guilty of All Charges in the Parkland Shooting

According to Curcio’s testimony, Peterson’s role amid the mayhem was “to stop [Cruz] from killing people,” but he did not do so because he was not following the protocols in place for engaging a gunman during a mass shooting. Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor released a statement expressing his displeasure with the verdict and denying allegations that prosecutors politicized the Peterson case.

It is not political to expect someone to do their job. 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,” Pryor said.

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“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.” Eiglarsh told reporters after hugging Peterson outside of the courthouse that Peterson’s acquittal proves that “the system works.”

This is not just a victory for Scot, but for every law enforcement officer in this country who does the best they can every single day,” Eiglarsh said. After a year has passed since the shooting at the Uvalde, Texas, primary school, where 21 people—19 of them children—were slain, the case against Peterson has received renewed attention.

Concerns have been raised in both cases by parents and legal experts about whether or not police should be held liable for their actions following a shooting. Victims’ families in Texas have asked that the officers who waited 77 minutes to engage the shooter be held accountable for their actions. No one has been arrested or even accused of anything.

More than eight months had passed since Cruz’s life sentence rather than the death penalty was revealed before Peterson’s acquittal was made public. During his 6 minutes and 22 second shooting spree, Cruz discharged 139 shots. Many of the victims’ families felt misled by the legal system after hearing the October judgment.

Despite being the first armed officer on the scene, Peterson, who had served as the school’s resource officer for over a decade, did not enter the building where the shooting was taking place. Peterson and the other officer left the 1200 building to take up position 75 feet distant at the 700 building as Cruz fired.

Peterson “remains at this position for the duration of the incident and only transmits information via his radio,” as reported by the sheriff’s office. In an interview over email before the trial, Peterson argued that “the pronounced echo that I and countless others experienced under the most stressful moment of my life made it impossible to determine the precise location of the shooter.”

An uproar was caused by the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s response, leading to the resignation of numerous deputies and the eventual removal of the sheriff. Peterson was the target of much of the outrage, and his dismissal from the sheriff’s department came before he was even indicted.

“I reflect on that shooting every single day, many times per day,” Peterson told The Post. “How can you not when a monster shot 34 people?” He added, “I’ve been living a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.” According to experts, the weight of the evidence against Peterson makes it extremely difficult for a jury to find him guilty.

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Prosecutors spent the whole trial trying to establish that he was working as a caretaker on the day in question, which was problematic because “caregiver” is not a phrase commonly associated with law enforcement personnel.

As the state law defines a caregiver as “a parent, adult household member, or other person responsible for a child’s welfare,” it becomes clear how difficult it can be to hold cops legally accountable for mistakes made under times of high stress. When interviewed by The Post prior to Peterson’s trial, Eiglarsh said that Peterson was “not a caregiver.”

Critics were outraged by Thursday’s judgment, including Parkland massacre survivor and activist David Hogg. To paraphrase one of Hogg’s tweets, Peterson “wasn’t a good guy with a gun, he was a coward with a gun.” Parents who lost children have spoken out, saying Peterson should have done more to prevent the deaths.

Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa, 14, was one of the victims, learned about the verdict while vacationing in Greece. While Alhadeff was not shocked by Peterson’s acquittal, she was horrified by the aftermath and said she now feels schools are less safe.

Scot Peterson Was Found Not Guilty of All Charges in the Parkland Shooting

“We’re giving school resource officers the option of whether they go inside during a school shooting, and now they have that pass,” Alhadeff said. “This jury had the opportunity to take a stand and set a precedent moving forward, and unfortunately, they failed today.”

Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed at age 14, was giving a presentation at the annual meeting of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Indianapolis when he received texts informing him of the acquittal.

“I had just finished doing training about the failures that led up to the shooting in Parkland and the failed response from Scot Peterson that day,” Schachter said. “I’m hoping this never happens again.” Peterson told reporters later that “we did the best we could with the information we had” and that “that monster” Cruz was solely to responsible for the 2018 atrocity.

Peterson and his wife Lydia have expressed a desire to meet with the victims’ loved ones, who may hold him responsible for the February 14th tragedy. “If they need to know the truth of what occurred, I’m there for them,” he said. “I know maybe that’s not what they’re feeling at this point, but I’ll be there for them.”

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina, 14, was among the victims, shook his head from the back of the courtroom as the judge delivered the verdicts on all counts and Peterson wept tears of delight. He explained to The Post that the court’s decision to exonerate him would never “absolve him of what he failed to do that day.”

“If he finds a way to bring me my daughter back, I’ll be happy to talk to him,” Montalto said. “If he can’t, he needs to live with the fact that his failures helped cause that.”

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