We can all recall the horrific news from Parkland, Florida where high schoolers were murdered by a maniac. The shooting was the deadliest high school massacre in U.S. history, with 17 people killed.
We learned that a profile of the shooter was soon published. It is likely to be a student. We were then told his name, and what he looked like. We then saw a video of Marjory’s Stoneman Douglas school resource officer Scot Peterson. Peterson was outside while the gunman, (I will not use his name), was shooting at students and staff. The “officer”, the man tasked with protecting those who were dying in the building, did not help.
Peterson’s lack of courage was the focus of America’s outrage at the Parkland shooting. He retired quickly to save his pension and was called a coward. Peterson was retroactively terminated by the Sheriff’s office. Peterson is still facing criminal charges for seven felonies.
Mr. Peterson faced trial for these counts of neglect. He was also charged with three misdemeanors of culpable neglect for the deaths of an 18-year-old student and a school teacher.
Mark Eiglarsh, Peterson’s lawyer, and the State both had layers of arguments. The New York Times reported:
Mark Eiglarsh pointed to other witnesses, who said they couldn’t pinpoint the source of the fatal shots. Former students, law enforcement officers, and staff testified at the trial to support the claim of the ex-deputy that it was hard to hear the source of the gunfire.
Eiglarsh’s closing argument on Monday said that two dozen witnesses had come in and each one told him they could not tell by the sounds exactly what area was being discussed. Eiglarsh said that even if Peterson knew where the shooter is, speculations that he might have been able to make a difference are false.
Early in my career, I was told that jury instructions were my friend. If you properly formulate and draft instructions, you will have a greater chance of getting a not-guilty verdict. I do not know what Mr. Eiglarsh’s instructions were or what the jury ultimately saw but, in my opinion, the charges against the defendants are excessive. The child neglect felony charge didn’t fit the facts.
According to criminal law, Mr. Peterson was not criminally responsible for neglecting children. It’s possible that the jury would have returned a guilty verdict for criminal negligence because they were “in it” and didn’t want to be convinced by the felony charges.
Then there is the question of what police are expected to do. Although it may be painful for most of us to hear, police are not required by law to act bravely or put themselves in danger. It may seem counterintuitive but that is the nature of law. In Warren v District of Columbia (a civil case), the court ruled that police officers have no duty to protect me, you, or anyone else. The general public is not owed a “duty of care”.
Peterson is now a free man. My opinion is that he’s a coward. However, I do not believe he’s criminally responsible – at least, not according to the law. He had a duty of morality, but not one that was legal.
Peterson, ironically, said that after the verdict he had “got his own life back”. There are 17 Parkland residents who will never have that opportunity.