A Florida jury will soon decide if a former police officer should be convicted of crimes for failing to confront the gunman who killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at a Parkland high school five years ago.
The trial, which includes charges of child neglect, is thought to be the first in the nation against a member of law enforcement for inaction in a school shooting.
During closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors asked jurors to hold Scot Peterson, a 60-year-old former sheriff’s deputy, accountable for standing by during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when he was the school’s only armed resource officer.
“Every student and every teacher on the third floor was still alive” when Mr. Peterson reached the building being targeted by the gunman, said Kristen Gomes, an assistant state attorney for Broward County. “And Scot Peterson chose to run.”
Mark Eiglarsh, Mr. Peterson’s defense lawyer, countered that Mr. Peterson did not know where the shots were coming from or how many shooters there were, and said that he had acted by calling a schoolwide “code red.” Mr. Eiglarsh also argued that his client was scapegoated by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which faced intense scrutiny after the shooting.
Mr. Eiglarsh pointed to a photo of the gunman. “We’re here because of that monster,” he said, adding, “He did it.”
By charging Mr. Peterson, prosecutors brought a novel legal approach to the question of what society expects of law enforcement officers, and the outcome of the trial could have effects well beyond Florida. For example, there are investigations into the police in Uvalde, Texas, where 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.
By his own account to investigators, Mr. Peterson arrived at what was known as the 1200 Building, drew his handgun and took cover in the alcove of a stairway of an adjacent building. He said he heard only two or three shots — though about 70 were fired during that time — and he directed other officers away from where the gunman was firing his semiautomatic rifle.
Mr. Peterson faces seven felony child neglect charges and three misdemeanor charges in relation to deaths and injuries on the third floor of the building, which prosecutors argued he had a chance to stop. He also faces a perjury charge; prosecutors claimed that he lied to the police when he said he heard only a few gunshots and saw no children fleeing.
The shooting lasted less than seven minutes; Mr. Peterson arrived outside the 1200 Building a little more than two minutes in, before the gunman made his way to the third floor. Mr. Peterson backed away and then remained in the same position for more than 45 minutes, long after the shooting had stopped.
The jury of three women and three men started deliberations two and a half weeks after the trial against Mr. Peterson began. He did not testify.
For Mr. Peterson to be convicted of child neglect, jurors must find that he was legally a “caregiver,” which Florida law defines as a “parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.” They must also determine whether he made a reasonable effort to protect the children and whether his actions caused harm.
The maximum possible punishment for the charges is 96 years in prison. But if convicted, Mr. Peterson is unlikely to face such a harsh sentence because he has no prior criminal record. He could lose his $104,000 annual pension.
Mr. Peterson retired after the shooting and was then retroactively fired. He later moved to North Carolina.
The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas High School student, was sentenced to life in prison last year after a three-month sentencing trial. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty.
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; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16, and Peter Wang, 15.
During closing arguments on Monday, Mr. Peterson repeatedly shook his head as prosecutors spoke. Sitting in the downtown Fort Lauderdale courtroom were Mr. Peterson’s wife and several victims’ families.
The defense called as witnesses students and teachers who were in the adjacent building and who testified that sounds echoed, making it difficult to pinpoint the gunshots’ origin. Police officers described poor radio communications and widespread confusion.
“I had no idea where the shots were from,” said Arthur Perry, a sheriff’s deputy who was a school resource officer at a nearby elementary school and raced to the high school. “They definitely sounded like they were outside.”
Prosecutors called survivors who were seriously injured on the third floor. They played videos of the shooting and had medical examiners describe autopsies. The head of a training unit testified that Mr. Peterson had received training to confront a gunman.
The detective who led the investigation into the massacre, John Curcio, wept when a prosecutor asked what Mr. Peterson’s objective should have been as the gunman attacked.
“The goal is to stop him from killing people,” Mr. Curcio said. “Anything so that kids can find safety.”