FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- A Florida sheriff's deputy was acquitted Thursday of felony child neglect and other charges for failing to act during the 2018 Parkland school massacre, concluding the first trial in U.S. history of a law enforcement officer for conduct during an on-campus shooting.
Former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson wept as the verdicts were read, while the fathers of two students murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb, 14, 2018, stared straight ahead and quickly left the courtroom. The jury had deliberated for 19 hours over four days.
After court adjourned, Peterson, his family and friends rushed into a group hug as they whooped, hollered and cried. Kevin Bolling, Peterson's private investigator, chased after lead prosecutor Chris Killoran and said something. Killoran turned and snapped at him, "Way to be a good winner" and slapped him on the shoulder. Members of the prosecution team then nudged Killoran out of the courtroom.
"I got my life back. We've got our life back," Peterson said as he exited the courtroom, his arm around his wife, Lydia Rodriguez, and his lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh. He has insisted that he would have confronted the shooter Nikolas Cruz, but because of echoes, he didn't know where the shots were coming from. "It's been an emotional roller coaster for so long."
He also said people should never forget the victims.
"Only one person was to blame and it was that monster (Cruz)," Peterson said. "It wasn't any of the law enforcement who was on that scene. ... Everybody did the best they could with the information we had."
Peterson said he hopes to one day sit down with the Parkland parents and spouses -- some of whom have publicly called him "the coward of Broward." He wants to tell them "the truth," that he did everything he could.
"I would love to talk to them. I have no problem," he said. "I'm there."
But two fathers who watched the verdict, Tony Montalto and Tom Hoyer, had no interest in meeting with Peterson. Montalto's 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed on the first floor; Hoyer's 15-year-old son Luke died next to her. Peterson was not charged in connection with their deaths because they happened before he reached the building. The men believe Peterson knew Cruz's location, but put his safety ahead of the students' and staff's.
"No. No. Bring me my daughter back," Montalto said about meeting with Peterson. "We'll all trade anything to get our kids back. The spouses, they who lost someone, they want them back, too. And if that's not going to happen, why do we need to talk to this failure? He didn't do the right thing. He ran away."
Hoyer said he didn't think Peterson would tell them the truth.
The campus deputy at Stoneman Douglas, Peterson had been charged with failing to confront shooter Cruz during his six-minute attack inside the three-story 1200 classroom building that left 17 dead.
His charges were in connection to the six killed and four wounded on the third floor, who were shot more than a minute after he approached the building. Prosecutors did not charge Peterson in connection with the 11 killed and 13 wounded on the first floor before he arrived. No one was shot on the second floor.
Prosecutors were using a novel legal theory against Peterson, that as the school's assigned deputy he was legally a "caregiver" to its students -- a requirement for him to be guilty of child neglect. Florida law defines a caregiver as "a parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child's welfare." If jurors found Peterson was a caregiver, they also would have had to agree he failed to make a "reasonable effort" to protect the children or failed to provide necessary care.
He could have received nearly 100 years in prison, although a sentence even approaching that length would have been highly unlikely given the circumstances and his clean record. He also could have lost his $104,000 annual pension.
Prosecutors, during their two-week presentation, called to the witness stand students, teachers and law enforcement officers who testified about the horror they experienced and how they knew Cruz was in the 1200 building. Prosecutors also called a training supervisor who testified Peterson did not follow protocols for confronting an active shooter.
During his two-day presentation, Peterson's attorney, Eiglarsh, called several deputies who arrived during the shooting and students and teachers who testified they did not think the shots were coming from the 1200 building. Peterson did not testify.
Eiglarsh also emphasized the failure of the sheriff's radio system during the attack, which limited what Peterson heard from arriving deputies.
He called the verdict "a victory for every law enforcement officer in this country" and said the prosecution was "political."
"How dare prosecutors try to second-guess the actions of honorable, decent police officers," Eiglarsh said.
But Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor, an elected Democrat, stood by his office's decision to prosecute Peterson.
"As parents, we have an expectation that armed school resource officers – who are under contract to be caregivers to our children – will do their jobs when we entrust our children to them and the schools they guard," Pryor said in a statement. "They have a special role and responsibilities that exceed the role and responsibilities of a police officer. To those who have tried to make this political, I say: It is not political to expect someone to do their job."
Montalto said if the jurors believe Peterson acted appropriately, they should get him hired at their children's schools.
Security videos show that 36 seconds after Cruz's attack began, Peterson exited his office about 100 yards (92 meters) from the 1200 building and jumped into a cart with two unarmed civilian security guards. They arrived at the building a minute later.
Peterson got out of the cart near the east doorway to the first-floor hallway. Cruz was at the hallway's opposite end, firing his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
Peterson, who was not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, didn't open the door. Instead, he took cover 75 feet (23 meters) away in the alcove of a neighboring building, his gun still drawn. He stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other police officers had stormed the building.
Peterson spent nearly three decades working at schools, including nine years at Stoneman Douglas. He retired shortly after the shooting and was then fired retroactively.
Cruz's jury could not unanimously agree he deserved the death penalty. The 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student was then sentenced to life in prison.