The trial against the retired police officer who refrained from entering the Parkland, Fla., high school where a gunman shot and killed 17 people in 2018 began on Wednesday.
Scot Peterson, the 60-year-old who served as the school’s armed resource officer, has repeatedly said he didn’t know where the gunshots were coming from during the Valentine’s Day attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history – and that’s why he didn’t enter the building.
A report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission found that Peterson arrived outside the building where the shooting was taking place two minutes after the first shots were fired. The gunman was still on the building’s first floor when Peterson got there, but the shooter continued up to the third floor to resume the killing while Peterson remained taking cover outside.
He never entered the building to confront the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who was later arrested after fleeing the scene.
In the aftermath of the massacre, families of the victims – 14 students and three staff members – denounced Peterson as a “coward.” He eventually retired and moved roughly 750 miles away to a remote mountain town in North Carolina.
“I’ve been living a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he told The Washington Post in an email last month ahead of the trial.
“I reflect on that shooting every single day, many times per day,” Peterson told The Post. “How can you not when a monster shot 34 people?”
The shooter was sentenced to life in prison without parole late last year.
Now, Peterson is at the center of an unprecedented trial against an officer who prosecutors say failed to protect the victims. Peterson pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, according to CNN, including seven felony child neglect charges, three for culpable negligence and one for perjury.
The seven felony child neglect charges are for the four students who were killed and three others who were wounded on the third floor, according to the AP.
Opening arguments in the trial began Wednesday.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office decided to charge Peterson under a Florida law that typically applies to caregivers, claiming Peterson was responsible for the students’ and staff’s safety as the school’s resource officer.
The National Association of School Resource Officers has previously said Peterson’s case is unprecedented, according to The Associated Press, while legal experts have expressed doubt to CNN about the state attorney’s office tactic to charge Peterson under the same type of laws that apply to caregivers. “It might be a little bit of a stretch prosecuting a law enforcement official for not doing anything,” New York defense attorney Joseph Conway told the outlet in 2019.
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But several parents of the victims want to see Peterson found guilty.
“The outcome of the Scot Peterson trial will have a ripple effect across this country and set a precedent moving forward,” Lori Alhadeff, the mother of 14-year-old victim Alyssa Alhadeff, told The Post. “Because if it’s acceptable for a school resource officer to not go and engage the threats during a shooting, then you are giving a pass to every SRO to decide, ‘Maybe I go in or maybe I won’t.’”
Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, told the newspaper he believes Peterson “left my kid to die.” Schachter warned police officers responding to mass shootings: “If you choose to do nothing, you will be held accountable.”