FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – Former school deputy Scot Peterson’s attorney says state officials were engaged in a “veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution” when they slapped Peterson with child-neglect charges for not confronting an assault rifle-wielding teenager during his attack on a Florida high school.
Peterson’s attorney Joseph DiRuzzo said Tuesday evening that the criminal charges against Peterson — over his allegedly flat-footed response to last year’s Parkland school shooting — are spurious and scapegoat the former deputy.
The Broward County state attorney and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Tuesday afternoon they were charging Peterson with child neglect, perjury and culpable negligence in connection with the Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting, which left 17 people dead.
The investigation was led by Keith Riddick of the FDLE’s Public Corruption Unit.
School surveillance video shows that Peterson, the school’s on-site deputy at the time, rushed towards the sound of the gunfire on a golf cart and then took a defensive position behind a concrete structure, outside the building where an expelled student was killing students and staff.
During the massacre, which lasted less than 10 minutes, Peterson was communicating with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and telling dispatch to lock down the campus.
The attacker, who had been reported to the sheriff’s office at least twice in the preceding two years over concerns he was planning a mass shooting, fired roughly 140 rounds inside Building 1200. He was never confronted by police before dropping the rifle and making his way off campus.
Coconut Creek officer Michael Leonard recognized the 19-year-old suspect not far from the Parkland school and apprehended him in a grassy area. The man is facing the death penalty on 17 counts of first-degree murder.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Peterson was lambasted by everyone from then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to President Donald Trump. He resigned amid a media frenzy over his alleged inaction during the attack.
Prosecutors claim Peterson received extensive active-shooter training and knew full well that he was obligated to confront the shooter.
“Peterson knowingly and willingly failed to act pursuant to his law enforcement training and sworn duties,” the arrest affidavit states.
The affidavit says Peterson retreated to a “position of increased personal safety” while the shooting was raging on, and that 6 victims were fatally wounded after Peterson decided not to enter Building 1200.
In his response statement Tuesday night, defense attorney DiRuzzo said the charges are unprecedented and should be dismissed immediately. He claims Peterson is the first law enforcement officer ever to be prosecuted for a response to a mass shooting.
DiRuzzo says the most serious charges — for felony child neglect — were brought based on the state’s “misguided legal theory” that Peterson was a “caregiver” under Florida law. The caregiver neglect statute under which Peterson is being charged defines that term as a “parent, adult household member, or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.”
DiRuzzo noted that a separate Florida statute — a family law that governs child custody procedures — expressly excludes law enforcement officers from being defined as “caregivers” unless they are working on behalf of the Department of Juvenile Justice (e.g. a youth detention facility guard).
The attorney said “the individuals who have made this charging decision have taken the easy way out and blamed Mr. Peterson” for the victims’ deaths. He echoed an argument made by Israel after Israel was fired by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis: that the state’s actions to punish law enforcement for the shooting stem from a desire to score political points, not to serve justice.
The governor’s suspension of Israel was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in April.
Beyond the child-neglect charges, Peterson is facing a perjury count for allegedly lying under oath about the amount of gunshots he heard.
He allegedly told investigators that he only heard a few shots upon arriving at Building 1200, a statement that prosecutors found implausible given his proximity to the gunfire.
Peterson has asserted in past public statements that he believed the gunfire was outside, and that he did what he was trained to do in outdoor-shooting situations: take a tactical position and seek cover.
Police radio recordings indicate that there was confusion among officers about the source of the shots, with some first responders believing that the gunfire was emanating from an on-campus field.
But according to prosecutors, Peterson’s communications with the sheriff’s office during the attack indicated he was aware the gunfire was likely coming from inside. He said at one point that he heard the shots “over … inside the 1200 Building” and told officers “do not approach” the structure.