FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lives were at stake, and Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson had a duty to run toward the sound of gunfire, to find the perpetrator and take him down, or at least to try, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday morning.
But, his lawyer countered, that would have required him to know then what everyone knows now: that a single gunman was responsible for the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; that the shots were coming from inside the 1200 building and not from nearby or outside; that the shooter systematically made his way from floor to floor to carry out his rampage.
Opening statements in Peterson’s trial on charges of child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury got underway with Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger offering a detailed account of the mass shooting, in which Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students and staff and wounded 17 more.
Klinger focused on the events that unfolded on the third floor, where Cruz killed five students and one teacher, injuring three other students and one other teacher. Those are the victims listed in the charges against Peterson, a 32-year law enforcement veteran who just two years before the shooting had been named Parkland deputy of the year.
The case against Peterson is an unusual one, focusing as much on what he did not do as it does on what he did. According to prosecutors, Peterson arrived outside the east entrance of the 1200 building just before the gunman was done shooting victims on the first floor.
Had Peterson gone into the east entrance when he first heard gunfire, he might have been able to determine the gunman’s location and confronted him before he reached the third floor.
Peterson is also accused of lying about how many shots he heard, minimizing the severity of the tragic event.
Prosecutors and defense lawyer Mark Eiglarsh are expected to clash repeatedly on one of the most significant questions at stake: How could Peterson have known the shots were coming from inside the 1200 building, or how could he not?
Peterson was the closest law enforcement officer when the gunman opened fire on the third floor, standing outside the nearby 700 building, two stories down and about 70 feet away.
He made radio transmissions that appeared to focus on the 1200 building.
“At that time, deputy Peterson is three floors down, on dispatch, and in the background you hear the shots,” Klinger said. “Those bullets are flying down the third-floor hall.”
In other transmissions Peterson referred to other buildings that could have been the source of the gunshots. Eiglarsh said his client could not be sure the shots were coming from the building or directed toward the building by a sniper who could have been stationed elsewhere.
Nearly two dozen witnesses told investigators they thought the shots were coming from various points on campus, including the 1200 building, the 1300 building directly west, the 700 building directly south, the football field on the other side of campus and the senior parking lot north of the 1200 building.
“They all believed the gunfire could be coming from anywhere,” Eiglarsh said. Peterson wanted people to stay away from the school to protect them from a sniper, Eiglarsh said.
“Possible, could be firecrackers; I think we have shots fired, possible shots fired. 1200 building,” he said into his police radio one second after Feis was shot. Eiglarsh told jurors that Peterson was giving his location, not his belief about the source of the gunfire.
Eiglarsh blamed former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel for using Peterson as a scapegoat to deflect criticism of his agency’s handling of the mass shooting.
He showed a photograph of the gunman and reminded jurors that he, and he alone, was responsible for the Parkland tragedy. “This person chose to commit one of the worst mass shootings in this nation’s history,” Eiglarsh said. “He is the one to blame for what happened that day.”
Cruz is serving 34 consecutive life sentences for the murders and attempted murders.
If convicted of felony neglect charges, Peterson, 60, could be sentenced to more than 90 years in prison.
(Rafael Olmeda can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4457)