By Holly Matkin and Sandy Malone
Fort Lauderdale, FL – The former school resource officer who hid rather than rushing to try and stop the mass shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was acquitted on 11 criminal counts on Thursday in connection with the massacre.
He would have faced up to 96 years in prison and the loss of his $104,000 annual pension if he had been convicted.
The jury, which was comprised of three men and three women, sat through a two-and-one-half-week trial and deliberated for approximately 19 hours over a four-day period before acquitting the 32-year law enforcement veteran on June 29, The New York Times reported.
Peterson sobbed as the judge read the verdict aloud to those inside the Fort Lauderdale courtroom.
“This was a massacre,” Mr. Peterson said after his acquittal, according to The New York Times. “The only person to blame was that monster [who carried out the attack].”
Peterson’s attorney argued that law enforcement officers do not meet the legal definition of caregivers and that the child negligence charges against him were therefore moot, the Associated Press reported.
But prosecutors noted Peterson was employed as a school resource deputy at the time of the massacre, and argued his position was inherently different from other law enforcement assignment details.
They said school resource officers should be considered caregivers, the Associated Press reported.
Broward Circuit Judge Martin Fein refused to dismiss the charges against Peterson in August of 2021 and decided to leave it up to a jury to decide whether or not school resource officers should be considered caregivers.
Surveillance videos of the scene in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, showed Peterson remained outside the three-story classroom building, and took cover behind a concrete column, during the former student’s six-minute shooting spree, the Associated Press reported.
The seven felony child neglect charges levied against him were for four of the students who were killed and three who were wounded on the third floor of the building when he failed to try to save them.
The three misdemeanor culpable negligence charges were for the adults who were shot on the third floor, including a teacher and an adult student who died, the Associated Press reported.
The former school resource officer had also been charged with perjury for allegedly lying to investigators after the incident.
Prosecutors did not charge Peterson in connection with the 11 victims fatally shot, and 13 who were wounded, on the first floor because he hadn’t yet arrived at the building, the Associated Press reported.
There were no victims on the second floor of the building.
Video showed that Deputy Peterson arrived at the building with his gun drawn 73 seconds before the school shooter got to the third floor, the Associated Press reported.
However, instead of rushing toward the sound of gunfire, video showed that Deputy Person backed away with his weapon drawn.
The former veteran law enforcement officer has claimed there was an echo between the buildings and he couldn’t tell where the sound of gunfire was coming from, the Associated Press reported.
The video showed Peterson taking cover 75 feet away from the building in the alcove of another building.
The former school resource officer has claimed he only heard two or three shots after he arrived at the building, but prosecutors said the gunman fired 70 more shots over a four-minute period while the deputy was hiding outside, the Associated Press reported.
He denied accusations that he hid and claimed that he thought the shots he was hearing at the time were coming from a sniper shooting from nearby trees.
Peterson was the first U.S. law enforcement officer who has been charged with failing to act during a school shooting, the Associated Press reported.
He retired shortly after the Parkland massacre and was later retroactively fired.