Scot Peterson not guilty over Parkland school shooting response

Scot Peterson
Scot Peterson (Image: Reuters)

A former sheriff’s deputy has been found not guilty of failing to protect students when a gunman opened fire at a Florida high school in 2018.

Scot Peterson stayed outside during the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near 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 began sobbing as the unanimous verdicts were read out in court in Fort Lauderdale, before being embraced by his lawyer.

Prosecutors had argued that Mr Peterson failed to follow his training during the attack on 14 February 2018.

But the defence focused on Mr Peterson’s long career, arguing that he was confused about the location of the shots, and that he was not a “caregiver” under a law typically used to prosecute parents or day care providers when children are hurt while under their care.

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.

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.

He retired after 32 years as a deputy in the aftermath of the attack and was charged in June 2019.

There is no law that requires a police officer to put themselves in the line of fire, or risk their lives during a shooting, so prosecutors chose to charge him with felony child negligence. The case hinged on whether Mr Peterson had a legal obligation to try to stop the killer.

The court heard testimony that Mr Peterson stayed in an alcove adjacent to the school building for 30 or 40 minutes, until the shooting stopped.

But Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, said it was a “ridiculous theory” to designate him a caregiver for hundreds of students. Mr Jarvis said the case had the potential to set precedent for whether law enforcement – or even regular school officials – will face prosecution for failing to confront a gunman. The not guilty verdict “will slam the door pretty tight on the possibility of future prosecutions like this”, Mr Jarvis said.

Gunman Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school, was sentenced in November to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


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