A Florida jury on Thursday cleared a former school security officer who was charged over his failure to confront a gunman who massacred 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, in an emotional trial that left bitter feelings on both sides.
Scot Peterson, who was a Broward County sheriff’s deputy and worked as a resource officer at the school in Parkland, was charged in 2019 with seven counts of neglect of a child, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury.
He was found not guilty on all counts. As the first acquittals were announced, an emotional Peterson put his head down on the defense table and openly wept.
The charges carried a maximum potential sentence of 96½ years in state prison, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office said.
Seventeen students, teachers and staff members were killed Feb. 14, 2018, and 17 more were injured.
Peterson, 60, was the only other person at the school with a gun when the shooter opened fire. He was forced to retire after the shooting.
"We got our life back after 4 ½ years ... and being able to put the truth out of what happened," Peterson told reporters outside court. "It's been an emotional roller coaster for so long."
In a lengthy post-verdict statement, Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor was unapologetic about his office's decision to prosecute Peterson even though no convictions were won.
“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. We did so because we think it’s important not only to our community, but to the country as a whole," Pryor said.
He addressed anyone who has "tried to make this political."
"It is not political to expect someone to do their job," Pryor said in the statement. "Especially when it’s the vital job of being a school resource officer — an armed law enforcement officer with special duties and responsibilities to the children and staff members they are contracted to protect."
Peterson was arrested in Broward County after a 15-month investigation found he “refused to investigate the source of the gunshots, retreated during the active shooting while victims were being shot and directed other law enforcement who arrived on scene to remain 500 feet away from the building,” according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Pryor thanked jurors for their service but did not stop hammering Peterson.
"Scot Peterson’s inaction and the misinformation he provided to law enforcement officers had a dire impact on the children and adults who died or were injured on the third floor of the 1200 Building," Pryor said in his statement. "He stood by, leaving an unrestricted killer to spend 4 minutes and 15 seconds wandering the halls at leisure — firing close to 70 rounds and killing or injuring ten of the 34 children and educators who bore the brunt of the massacre."
Outside court Thursday, Peterson maintained only one person was to be blamed for the deaths of 17 people more than five years ago.
"Don't anybody ever forget this was a massacre on Feb. 14," he said. The "only to person to blame was that monster."
Peterson grouped himself with the other police officers and sheriff's deputies who flooded the scene shortly after shots were fired and said law enforcement offers were not at fault.
"We did the best we could with the information we had," he said. "And God knows we wish we had more."
A former student pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. Last year, a jury spared him the death penalty, recommending that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I’m sorry,” he said through tears.
He said at the time it wasn’t fear that kept him from rushing into the school as the gunman stalked the halls with an AR-15. He cited chaos, miscommunication and his assumption that the shots were being fired outside by a sniper.
“I didn’t get it right,” Peterson said. “But it wasn’t because of some, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go into that building. Oh, I don’t want to face somebody in there.’ It wasn’t like that at all.”
Peterson's lawyer hailed the verdicts as a win for law enforcement.
"We are extremely pleased with the outcome today. But understand something: This is not just a victory for Scot. It's a victory for every law enforcement officer in this country who does the best they can every single day," Mark Eiglarsh said. "How dare prosecutors try to second-guess the actions of honorable, decent police officers."
Even with across-the-board acquittals, Tony Montalto, the father of victim Gina Montalto, refused to believe Peterson was not criminally at fault.
"His inaction contributed to the pain of our entire community, and we don't understand how this jury looked at the evidence that was presented and found him hot guilty," he told reporters outside court.