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Legal experts agree that Scot Peterson failed. Whether he can be convicted for it isn't so clear

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 6/5/2019 By Andrew Boryga and Lisa J. Huriash, Sun Sentinel

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Video by CBS News

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The charges against ex-Broward Deputy Scot Peterson left many people feeling vindicated, but experts say it will be an uphill battle for prosecutors to actually convict Peterson of the seven counts of neglect of a child and three counts of culpable negligence.

To make those charges stick — in a possibly unprecedented case — the state must establish Peterson as a caregiver of the students, prove he exposed them to harm through his inaction and prove he did so as a result of “reckless disregard for human life,” according to Florida law statutes.

Matthew Mayer, a professor at Rutgers University who studies violence in educational settings, said although many might agree Peterson had a moral duty to go inside the building as children were being shot, charging Peterson on the assumption that he could have made a difference in the loss of life “rests on him being in the correct place at the right time and getting there and successfully and firing shots. That is 100% speculation,” Mayer said.

What’s more, it won’t be easy to prove in a court of law.

Now the perjury count is a different story.

“Perjury is perjury is perjury,” said H. Scott Fingerhut, a law professor at Florida International University. “If they can make that case, they will prosecute it.”

a man standing in front of a television: Scot Peterson appears in magistrate court via television feed from the Broward County Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

Scot Peterson appears in magistrate court via television feed from the Broward County Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.
© Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS
Fingerhut believes the perjury charge could serve as an interesting linchpin for the rest of the charges, which he said normally wouldn’t otherwise be brought in tandem. “It’s a novel approach,” said Fingerhut. In 25 years of teaching and practicing law he has never seen charges such as these against an officer.

But this isn’t just any case. It is one that has drawn national attention, and one that many want answers and accountability for.

“If you are going to take a shot, this is the case to take a shot,” Fingerhut said. “Especially if you have a perjury charge that is solid.”

Although it is hard to fault Peterson for the killings on the first floor of the building, which happened quickly, prosecutors believe Peterson had time to stop or at least engage with the shooter on the third floor.

The warrant for his arrest also notes that Peterson attended over a dozen active shooter related courses, including one in April 2016 in which one of the objectives was for participants to be “better prepared to respond to an active shooter incident.”

“Remember, every time you hear a gunshot,” language from the training read, “you have to believe that is another victim being killed.”

Further evidence of his negligence, prosecutors say, is that at the time of the shooting Peterson was an instructor for the Broward Public Schools “Active Killer” course.

Eugene O’Donnell, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department officer and police trainer, believes training is different from how officers react in the midst of a scene such as the one Peterson confronted on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2018.

“Criminalizing someone for not acting in the middle of a mass murder is built on the preposterous notion that police officers are Navy SEALs in disguise that can spring into action,” O’Donnell said. “You never know what you’re going to do when the bullets start flying.”

O’Donnell said he could understand how Peterson might lose his job as a result of his conduct during the shooting. But he believes charges such as these are an effort to respond to public outrage. “This is headhunting. This is trying to make someone pay for a tragic series of events.”

Related slideshow: Timeline shows how the Parkland shooting unfolded (Business Insider)

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, head of a state commission investigating the shooting, sees things differently.

“Scott Peterson is a coward. He’s a failure. And he’s a criminal,” Gualtieri said in response to the charges. “No doubt because he didn’t act people were hurt and people were killed.”

Joseph Guida, an expert witness for police-related court cases for NYPDTruth.com and a former New York City police officer, agreed.

Although Guida has never heard of a police officer being prosecuted for not doing his job, he also has never heard of an officer waiting outside during a mass murder.

“I always thought (Peterson) should have been prosecuted because your job as a police officer is to run toward the danger,” Guida said. “When you don’t do that you are actually a coward and shirking your duties and responsibilities.”

Fingerhut and Mayer believe opinions like these — which they both agree with on an emotional level — won’t necessarily hold in court.

“We don’t know what his lack of action legally caused,” Fingerhut said. “What we think morally is one thing. But our criminal justice systems are based on legal liability or guilt, meaning what can be proved.”

If perjury can be proved, Peterson could be punished by up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines. If convicted as charged on everything in his warrant, Peterson could face a maximum of nearly 97 years.

The reality of the latter situation is far from a slam-dunk.

“You got the common sense case here, but I don’t know if you have the legal case,” Mayer said.

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©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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