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Prosecutors face unprecedented trial with Parkland ex-deputy Scot Peterson

Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, left, and defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh watch a video of a students during the 2018 MSD shooting on the second day of testimony in Peterson’s case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, June 8, 2023.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
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South Florida Sun Sentinel
Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, left, and defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh watch a video of a students during the 2018 MSD shooting on the second day of testimony in Peterson’s case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Broward prosecutors have their work cut out for them in the trial of the former Broward school resource officer who was on duty during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a legal expert says. Opening arguments were delivered last week.

Broward prosecutors have their work cut out for them in the trial of Scot Peterson, the former Broward school resource officer who was on duty during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead and 17 others injured, a Nova Southeastern University law professor told WLRN.

The case represents the first time a police officer is being charged for inaction during a mass shooting. Peterson, 60, faces felony child neglect charges for some of the students killed and hurt that day, more than five years ago.

He is charged with failing to confront shooter before the gunman reached the 1200 building's third floor, where six of the victims died. Peterson is not charged in connection with the 11 deaths on the first floor, before he reached the building. He never entered the building, taking cover nearby. He insists he did not know where the shots were coming from.

If convicted, Peterson could spend the rest of his life in prison.

In the trial, which started last week and could last two month, the jury will have to decide whether Peterson had a duty to engage the shooter. The other question is what Peterson heard and what he thought was happening during the shooting. What he heard and saw on Feb. 14, 2018, is a major issue in the trial.

Peterson’s lawyer Mark Eiglarsh told jurors in his opening arguments that the shooter was ultimately responsible for carrying out the mass shooting — not his client.

Jarvis, who has followed the Parkland shooting case for years, said the defense strategy to focus attention on the gunman is key.

"On one level, of course, they're arguing that he cannot be prosecuted under the statute, because he was not a caregiver," said Jarvis. "On another level, there is the factual question of whether Peterson should have run in and confronted Nikolas Cruz. And then, of course, if you find that he should have realized what was going on and he should have run into the building, then there is the very real question of whether a police officer or school resource officer who was not wearing any kind of body armor, who only had a service revolver, would have been able to stop Cruz, who was firing with a semiautomatic AR 15."

READ MORE: Trial for disgraced former school resource officer, Scot Peterson, begins

Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger argued that Peterson neglected his duty and training by waiting outside the school building, where the gunman entered and began firing his weapon. He told jurors Peterson was trained in active shooter scenarios.

Klinger was part of the team of prosecutors who unsuccessfully attempted to convince jurors to sentence the shooter to death during a penalty trial last year.

Jarvis said proving Peterson was negligent means prosecutors are making the argument "that he was a coward.”

"Well, of course, the prosecution is going to focus on his training," said Jarvis. "But, you know, it's it's really a very difficult case for the prosecution because what they are really arguing is that he was a coward. And even though you have active shooter training, there is a real question as to whether a police officer, a school resource officer, has to engage an active shooter when the officer clearly is outgunned."

Jarvis said the jury's decision in the Peterson trial will have implications for other officers called in response to mass shooters in recent cases and in future incidents.

"Obviously, if it goes against Peterson, there will, of course, be some cops who say, I don't want this kind of liability," said Jarvis. "And then we're going to have to have a real question. If cops are really expected to go in and to confront active shooters.

"We're going to have to give them body armor. We're going to have to give them sufficient firepower that they stand a real chance against an active shooter," said Jarvis. "And the question is, do we want to militarize the police in that way?"

"The real problem, of course, here, is that the person who is responsible for this is Nikolas Cruz," Jarvis told WLRN. "However, there were many, many other people who were responsible and who have not been charged. And so in many respects, Scott Peterson is being made a scapegoat for the failure … for the systematic failures of society."

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Gerard Albert III is a senior journalism major at Florida International University, who flip-flopped around creative interests until being pulled away by the rush of reporting.