When Florida prosecutors charged former Deputy Scot Peterson for his alleged inaction during the 2018 Parkland school massacre, they faced a major hurdle: no law precisely fit.
So it was not a surprise to legal observers that Peterson was acquitted Thursday of child neglect and other charges for failing to confront the shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Without an on-point statute to base their case upon, prosecutors tried to make the law fit the facts instead of the facts fit the law, lawyers said. That is always a tougher courtroom battle to win.
The Peterson case “has always been an uphill climb for the prosecutors,” Miami criminal defense attorney David S. Weinstein said. “I feel bad for the victims and their families. Their pain will last for a lifetime. For them, the disappointment in the system continues. It was compounded by the state pushing forward on this case, despite the high odds of obtaining a conviction.”
But Linda Beigel Schulman, whose son, teacher Scott Beigel, died in the shooting while protecting students, said Friday that prosecutors were always upfront with the victims’ families that an acquittal was a distinct possibility. This was the first time a U.S. law enforcement officer was tried for failing to act during an on-campus shooting — there was no precedent to compare the case with.
She said that while she is disappointed in the verdict, she does not blame the prosecutors or the jury — “they did their job.”
“We have a legal system in this country, but it’s not always just,” Beigel Schulman said.
Florida has well-defined statutes that cover unlawful actions law enforcement officers might commit, such as unjustly shooting or beating a suspect. But none says a school police officer must act while students are being shot.
That is what Peterson was accused of: doing nothing. He has insisted he would have acted, but echoes prevented him from pinpointing where the gunshots were coming from. He had faced a possible lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
The school’s on-campus deputy, Peterson, 60, was in his office on Feb. 14, 2018, when Nikolas Cruz began his six-minute attack, firing about 140 shots with his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle inside a three-story classroom building.
Peterson and two unarmed civilian security guards arrived at the building within two minutes. Cruz was at the opposite end, killing the last of the 11 people he would murder on the first floor — an unarmed security officer who had opened a door to go after him.
Security video shows Peterson got within feet of another door and drew his handgun but then backed away, taking cover next to an adjoining building 75 feet (23 meters) away. He radioed arriving deputies to stay 500 feet (152 meters) back.
Meanwhile, Cruz headed up the stairs to the third floor, where he would kill six more beginning 73 seconds later.
Peterson would stay next to the alcove for 40 minutes, long after the shooting had stopped, Cruz had fled and other officers charged inside.
Eight days later, then-Sheriff Scott Israel, who was under political pressure for the shooting, said his video review of Peterson’s actions made him “sick.” Peterson retired and was then retroactively fired. Israel was also fired 11 months later by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shortly after he took office.
Peterson’s attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, has said Israel’s comments unjustly set the community against his client. He said Israel never spoke to Peterson to get his side, though they had been friends.
“Every one of us erroneously assumed that my client knew that kids were being killed in that building and he just didn’t go in. The jurors made it clear through their verdict that couldn’t be further from the truth. He did everything he could,” Eiglarsh said.
Circuit Judge Martin Fein sealed the jurors’ names and none came forward Friday to say whether they believed Peterson or simply didn’t think the law fit.
More than a year after the shooting, prosecutors charged Peterson. The most serious counts were child neglect — a charge most commonly levied against parents whose lack of care leads to their child’s death or serious injury. To be convicted, Peterson had to be considered a “caregiver” to the students who were shot — an assertion that caused a skeptical Judge Fein to almost dismiss the case before it got to the jury.
University of Miami law professor Craig Trocino said that if the prosecution’s theory were true, “every first responder would then be subject to criminal liability for child neglect any time there is a child present at any time an officer is also present.”
Bob Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s law school, said prosecutors seemed to want to charge Peterson with “cowardice under fire,” but only the military has such laws. He said prosecutors had “no case.”
“Peterson was being made a scapegoat. While he certainly had some amount of responsibility, every adult who ever came into contact with Nikolas Cruz — parents, foster parents, school administrators, teachers, social workers, etc. — also had some responsibility,” he said.
In a statement, Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor’s office stood by its decision to charge Peterson, saying there was “sufficient evidence.”
“There was an obligation to address the circumstance and evidence in this case, the acute need for safety in our schools and the special role of school resource officers,” the statement said.
Tony Montalto, the president of Stand with Parkland, the group that represents most of the victims’ families, said its board will discuss whether to lobby the Florida Legislature to enact a law requiring school police officers to act during a shooting.
“There is no reason parents shouldn’t expect a school resource officer to protect their children,” said Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting.
Pryor told the parents he would support that effort.