Scot Peterson, Florida school officer, on trial for child neglect in mass shooting

Scot Peterson, Florida school officer, on trial for child neglect in mass shooting

A Florida prosecutor urged jurors on Wednesday to convict a former sheriff's deputy of failing to protect students during the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Scot Peterson was on duty as a school resource officer when a gunman entered the building in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018 and opened fire, killing 17 and wounding another 17.

Peterson never went inside while the shooting was underway, according to the Broward County Sheriff's Office and surveillance video.

Peterson, 60, was charged in 2019 with 11 criminal charges of child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury, carrying a combined maximum prison sentence of nearly 97 years.

He becomes the first U.S. law enforcement officer prosecuted for his alleged actions and inaction during a school shooting. Texas authorities are still considering charges for the officers who failed last year to confront the gunman at an Uvalde elementary school who killed 19 children and two teachers.

Failed active shooter training: prosecution

Broward County Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger told the six-member jury that the contract between the county sheriff's office and the school endowed Peterson with a unique duty to protect members of the school community.

"He's the lead security person at that school," Klinger said. "He is trained on active shooter scenarios; he is trained how to handle a situation where he is the only law enforcement person there to handle an active shooter."

Several people are shown outside standing in front of large boards portraying the images of teenagers.
People attend a memorial service on the five-year anniversary on Feb. 14, 2023 of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Legal experts have said Peterson's defence has a strong case. The neglect law he is accused of breaking is normally used to prosecute caregivers such as daycare providers and parents, not law enforcement officers.

A jury in October spared Nikolas Cruz, the gunman in the Parkland shooting, from the death penalty, instead calling for life in prison without possibility of parole.

His attorney Mark Eiglarsh has said he will call 22 witnesses who also thought the shots came from outside. He argued in his opening statement that seemed a real possibility to his client, coming just a few months after dozens were killed standing outside while attending a Las Vegas concert.

"He didn't know where those shots were coming from precisely," Eiglarsh said.

Unreasonable expectation, defence argues

Eiglarsh said Peterson, who was only on the scene for a total of over four minutes, is being used as a scapegoat for the failures of others and the desire to place blame after a tragedy.

A SWAT team eventually took 30 minutes to clear the building where most of the fatalities took place, Eiglarsh said.

Eiglarsh is also expected to argue that under Florida law, Peterson had no legal obligation to enter the building and confront Cruz.

Two prospective jurors demanded to speak to Circuit Judge Martin Fein outside of the presence of the others. One said he already knew he couldn't be fair because he considered Peterson "a coward." Another said his boss's daughter was one of the 17 wounded in the shooting. Both were dismissed from serving.

Despite requests from both the prosecution and defence, Fein ruled that it was not necessary for the jury to visit the school in person.

The mass shooting attracted national attention, with then-president Donald Trump opining of Peterson, "when it came time to get in there and do something, he didn't have the courage or something happened, but he certainly did a poor job."

Several of the students from Marjory Stoneman became heavily involved in gun control activism as a result of their experiences.