A former Florida sheriff’s deputy who failed to confront the gunman at a Parkland high school five years ago, and instead backed away from the building while the students and teachers inside endured a deadly barrage, was found not guilty of child neglect and other crimes on Thursday.
Scot Peterson, a former Broward County sheriff’s deputy, was acquitted of seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence for the deaths and injuries of 10 people on the third floor of the building where the shooting occurred. He was also found not guilty of one count of perjury for claiming to the police that he heard only a few gunshots and saw no children fleeing.
When Mr. Peterson’s behavior was revealed after the shooting, critics — including some fellow police officers — painted him as being too scared to face a heavily armed gunman. His actions outraged the Parkland community, and Mr. Peterson was cast as the central character in a morality tale about cowardice and law enforcement’s duty to protect children. One victim’s father told him to “rot in hell,” and he was derided in national media outlets as the “coward in Broward.”
In all, 17 people were killed and 17 were wounded in the shooting, which was carried out by a former student. The gunman was sentenced last year to life in prison, in the same courtroom where Mr. Peterson was acquitted on Thursday. Mr. Peterson was the lone armed resource officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre.
On Thursday, Mr. Peterson, 60, sobbed heavily as Judge Martin S. Fein of the Broward County Circuit Court read the verdict to a courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where only a few members of victims’ families were present. Mr. Peterson, standing with his hands clasped in prayer position, nodded and mouthed quiet thanks to jurors as they filed out.
“We’ve got our life back after four and a half years,” Mr. Peterson, still emotional, said outside the courtroom, standing next to his wife. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for so long.”
The trial was believed to be the first in the nation against a police officer for inaction during a mass shooting, and a conviction might have paved the way for prosecutors to pursue charges against other law enforcement officers over their response to mass shootings. The police in Uvalde, Texas, are being investigated because officers waited more than an hour before entering two classrooms at Robb Elementary School during a May 2022 shooting in which 21 people were killed.
But from the start, experts considered the odds to be long for Florida prosecutors to succeed. Because they charged Mr. Peterson with child neglect, an unusual legal approach, they had to persuade jurors that the former deputy was a “caregiver” responsible for the welfare of students, a designation not typically applied to police officers. Even the judge expressed skepticism from the bench at the argument that the former deputy’s inaction could be said to have “caused” harm.
“This is not just a victory for Scot,” Mark Eiglarsh, his defense lawyer, said. “It’s a victory for every law enforcement officer in this country who does the best they can every single day. How dare prosecutors try to second-guess the actions of honorable, decent police officers?”
It was the second stinging defeat involving the Parkland shooting for the Broward State Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for the gunman, but he got a life sentence instead.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, prosecutors in this case have tried to hold an armed school resource officer responsible for not doing his job,” Harold F. Pryor, a Democrat and the elected state attorney, said in a statement after the Peterson verdict. “We did so because we think it’s important not only to our community, but to the country as a whole.”
The jury of three women and three men, who deliberated for about 19 hours over four days after a two-and-a-half-week trial, found that prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Peterson, who did not testify, should be considered someone “responsible for a child’s welfare.”
“This was a massacre,” Mr. Peterson said after the verdict. “The only person to blame was that monster.”
“We did the best we could with the information that we had,” he added. “And God knows we wish we’d had more.”
Though a state investigation found widespread failures, including other police shortfalls, Mr. Peterson was the only person other than the gunman to be charged in the shooting. If convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of 96 years and the loss of his $104,000 annual pension.
Mr. Peterson said he had mourned the Parkland deaths and would be willing to sit down with victims’ families. But the parents of two victims said after hearing the verdict in court that they had no interest in such a meeting, adding that they were once again in disbelief and deeply disappointed.
“I feel that my faith in the U.S. justice system is shaken,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Gina. “And I feel that the people of Broward County need to learn how to hold people accountable when they fail. How can you have 17 people die in a school and everybody’s labeled a hero?”
Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son, Luke, was killed, said, “I don’t know what our kids and our teachers are supposed to do in a school when the person who’s supposed to protect them doesn’t.”
Mr. Peterson arrived outside what was known as the 1200 Building about two and a half minutes after the shooting began. He backed away and remained in the alcove of a stairway of an adjacent building for the remaining roughly four minutes of the shooting — and for more than 40 minutes after that, long after the gunman had fled from the building and other police officers had rushed in.
In addition to Luke Hoyer and Gina Montalto, the students and adults killed in the shooting were Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Christopher Hixon, 49; Cara Loughran, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16, and Peter Wang, 15.
The charging of Mr. Peterson in 2019 raised a fundamental question about whether he had frozen under pressure — and whether such a reaction constituted a crime for a sworn police officer assigned to a school.
Police officers were once trained to wait for SWAT teams to confront mass shooters, but that changed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The head of the training unit for the Broward Sheriff’s Office testified that Mr. Peterson had been trained to try to confront a gunman, even without police backup, to stop the killing.
“From my personal experience in my schools, the students were my students and it was my school,” said Mac Hardy, the director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “When you put that gun belt on every morning and leave your house, you know your responsibilities and the things you have to do to be successful to keep your kids safe.”
Prosecutors conceded that Mr. Peterson could not have stopped any of the deaths or injuries on the first floor of the three-story building, which took place before he arrived. But they said he might have had a chance to prevent 10 deaths or injuries on the third floor. No one was hurt on the second floor.
“He chose his life over everybody else’s,” Chris Killoran, an assistant state attorney, said on Monday.
Mr. Peterson told investigators that he had not been sure of where the gunfire was coming from or how many shooters there were. He called a “code red” to lock down the school and did the best he could under stressful conditions with limited information and poor radios.
Mr. Eiglarsh, the defense lawyer, said that Mr. Peterson had been a scapegoat for the former sheriff, whose office faced intense scrutiny after the shooting and never debriefed Mr. Peterson to get his account of the shooting before pushing him out.