US officer found not guilty of neglect in Parkland shooting

Jury acquits Scot Peterson of felony child neglect, other charges linked to response to deadly 2018 high school attack.

Mark Eiglarsh with Scot Peterson
Defence lawyer Mark Eiglarsh (right) with former officer Scot Peterson, June 27 [Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Pool via AP Photo]

A Florida sheriff’s deputy has been acquitted of felony child neglect and other charges for his actions during the 2018 Parkland school massacre, concluding the first trial in United States history of a law enforcement officer for conduct during an on-campus shooting.

Former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson wept as the verdicts were read on Thursday. The jury had deliberated for 19 hours over four days.

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 the school’s three-storey 1200 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.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Peterson fled for safety instead of confronting Cruz, allowing the shooter to continue on with his rampage.

“Choose to go in or choose to run? Scot Peterson chose to run,” prosecutor Kristen Gomes told the jury earlier this week. “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 lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, argued that the defendant was being made a “sacrificial lamb” for failures by elected officials and administrators.

He said the evidence proved 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.

Eiglarsh also emphasised the failure of the sheriff’s radio system during the attack, which limited what Peterson heard from arriving deputies.

Security videos show that 36 seconds after Cruz’s attack began, Peterson exited his office about 90 metres (295 feet) 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 in the alcove of a neighbouring building, his gun still drawn. He stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other police officers had stormed the building.

In Texas, authorities are similarly investigating officers in the town of Uvalde who did not confront the shooter who killed 19 elementary students and two teachers last year. None have been charged, however.

The Parkland school shooting remains one of the deadliest in US history. It shocked the country and renewed calls for gun reforms, but more than five years later, the US continues to suffer from regular mass shootings and rampant gun violence.

Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty and last year received a life sentence.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press