Trial begins for Parkland school resource officer who stayed outside during shooting

The Parkland mass shooting is the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history

ByDakin Andone, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
Florida deputy charged for inaction during Parkland shooting
The former Florida deputy who failed to confront a gunman during last year's Parkland school massacre was arrested Tuesday on 11 criminal charges related to his actions, prosecutor

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The trial of Scot Peterson began Wednesday, as jurors heard opening statements about whether the former school resource officer reacted appropriately when he remained outside a Parkland, Florida, high school while 17 people were gunned down five years ago, CNN reported.

The above video is from a previous report.

Peterson's attorney argued his client could not discern the location of the shooter, based on the sound of the gunshots, and reacted as best he could with the information he had.

SEE MORE: Florida deputy Scot Peterson charged for inaction during Parkland school shooting

A prosecutor told jurors that the state has witnesses that will say they heard gunfire from the 1200 building.

The state has accused Peterson, then a deputy with the Broward Sheriff's Office, of failing to follow his active shooter training by staying outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, taking cover for at least 45 minutes while a former student carried out what remains the deadliest high school shooting in US history. Among the slain were 14 students and three staff members; 17 others were injured.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Steven Klinger gave the jury an exhaustive timeline of the shooting, in which he said, "Seventeen beautiful people were lost."

SEE MORE: Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz sentenced to life in prison without parole for 2018 massacre

But when Peterson arrived on the scene, with gunfire erupting inside the school's 1200 building, he took a position, Klinger said, in an alcove between the nearby 700 and 800 buildings.

"The defendant will never leave that alcove while the shooter is in the building," Klinger said, adding Peterson wouldn't move for about 48 minutes.

The case highlights the expectations for officers responding to active shooters as the country faces a seemingly endless scourge of gun violence, with schools such as those in Parkland; Uvalde, Texas; and Newtown, Connecticut, etched in public memory as the scenes of some of the most devastating massacres.

Peterson has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, including seven of felony child neglect and three of culpable negligence, which Klinger said stem from each of the victims shot on the third floor of the 1200 building. He also faces one count of perjury, in part for telling investigators he heard only two or three gunshots after arriving at the scene of the shooting, the affidavit says, while other witnesses said they'd heard more.

But the 60-year-old, who retired as criticism of his alleged failure mounted, has maintained he did nothing wrong. Peterson has said he didn't enter the unfolding scene of carnage in the school's 1200 building because he couldn't tell where the gunshots were coming from.

ALSO SEE: Parkland school shooting: Remembering victims, from hero coach to college-bound students

The defense has 22 witnesses who will testify they, too, were confused about the location of the gunfire, defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh said in his own opening statement. On the scene, Eiglarsh said, there was a "pronounced echo and reverberation" that left the witnesses wondering, "Where is that coming from?"

But other witnesses, including another staff member who was with Peterson when he arrived, understood what the former deputy claims he did not, Klinger told the jury: That the gunshots were coming from inside the 1200 building.

Eiglarsh emphasized that the shooting unfolded over just six minutes and 36 seconds, and that Peterson was on the scene for the last four minutes and 15 seconds. When the first victims were killed on the first floor, he said, Peterson wasn't even on the scene.

RELATED: Parkland shooting victim criticizes sheriff, school after release from hospital

One person is responsible for the carnage that day, Eiglarsh said, showing the jury a picture of the gunman. He claimed his client was a scapegoat who was charged in this case after a "biased and failed investigation."

Before the shooting, Peterson was a dedicated and decorated officer who had served for more than three decades, Eiglarsh said, having received awards for deputy of the year and school resource officer of the year.

"What we have here is a man with a decorated history of serving the community for 32 years, and in literally four minutes and 15 seconds, they're claiming he became a criminal," Eiglarsh said.

Jury selection began last Wednesday, yielding a panel of six jurors and four alternates tasked with weighing the state's unusual case, which experts have described to CNN as the first of its kind and a legal stretch.

The Broward State Attorney's Office charged Peterson under a Florida statute that usually applies to caretakers, arguing the then-deputy, in his capacity as a school resource officer, was a caregiver responsible for the protection of the high school's students and staff.

'His actions cost lives,' victim's father says

Peterson was at the school administration building on February 14, 2018, when the shooter opened fire on the first floor of the 1200 building, according to a probable cause affidavit. Peterson got to the building's east entrance about 2 minutes later, per a timeline in the affidavit.

Peterson moved about 75 feet away and "positioned himself behind the wall of the stairwell on the northeast corner of the 700 Building" - a third campus structure - the affidavit says, calling it a "position of cover" he held for the duration of the shooting.

In a blow to both the state and the defense, the judge last week ruled jurors will not make a trip to the scene of the shooting, as the jury in the shooter's trial did, CNN affiliate WPLG reported. Eiglarsh wanted the jury to see the exterior of the 1200 building, which has been preserved pending the trials of the shooter and Peterson, while prosecutors had wanted jurors to see the building's interior, too.

Peterson's attorney intends to argue, in part, that his client's confusion about the location of the shooter was reasonable and shared by others at the scene, including members of law enforcement, teachers and students, Eiglarsh told CNN. The lawyer also contends Peterson's actions at the scene illustrate he was not negligent, he said.

Additionally, Eiglarsh disagrees with the decision to charge his client under the caretaker statute, he told CNN, calling the choice "preposterous."

"He's not a legal caregiver," Eiglarsh said, acknowledging he understands the argument. "But he's not a teacher, he's not a parent, he's not a kidnapper who's responsible for the well-being of a child. He's not hired by the school system."

In the past, Peterson and his attorneys have argued the caretaker statute does not apply to him, emphasizing one person is responsible for the deaths and injuries that day: the gunman, then-19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder and was sentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury declined to unanimously recommend the death penalty.

That outcome angered and disappointed many victims' families, including some who see Peterson's trial as another opportunity for justice.

ALSO SEE: Stoneman Douglas school shooting survivors file civil rights lawsuit over Feb. 14 massacre

"We should not portray or allow the defense team or the deputy who failed to act properly to portray himself as a victim," Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old victim Gina Montalto told CNN before jury selection. "He was charged with keeping the students and staff safe, and he failed to do so."

"Regardless of the outcome in the trial," he said, "I hope he's haunted every day by the fact that his actions cost lives."

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