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Ex-Florida Deputy Faces 11 Charges After Not Intervening In School Shooting

NOEL KING, HOST:

Deputy Scot Peterson was on duty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February of 2018 when a 19-year-old opened fire inside. Surveillance video shows that instead of rushing into the school, he moved to safety and took up a position outside. Three staff members and 14 students were killed in that shooting. Among them was Lori Alhadeff's 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa. Here's Lori Alhadeff speaking to WPTV yesterday.

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LORI ALHADEFF: He needs to serve a lifetime in prison for not going in that day and taking down the threat and - that led to the death of our loved ones.

KING: After the shooting, Deputy Peterson retired, and now he's been arrested on 11 criminal charges. With me now is Celeste Higgins. She's a criminal defense attorney and professor at the University of Miami School of Law. Good morning, Professor.

CELESTE HIGGINS: Good morning.

KING: The charges here include culpable negligence, perjury and child neglect. What do you make of these charges?

HIGGINS: Well, it seems to me that the perjury charge is probably going to be the easier one for the prosecutor's office to prove. Because if there's something that he said that contradicts something that was later discovered, that's not going to be difficult. What I find to be a little bit more difficult for the prosecution to prove in this case would be the culpable negligence and the child neglect. The standard is excessively high according to Florida statute. And the elements that the prosecutors would have to prove are significantly high.

I don't think it was easy for them to make a decision as to whether to prosecute a law enforcement officer for not taking more action, but I do think that there's a lot of pressure because this is still a pretty volatile incident. These parents are looking for some justice. The 19-year-old has still not gone to trial yet. And I think that there's some pressure on the prosecutor's office to take some sort of action.

KING: The decision to charge a law enforcement official for something that he didn't do - is that unusual?

HIGGINS: I find it unusual. I'm not going to say it's unprecedented, but I think it is unusual. Much will depend on what standard operating procedures he was working with, what the protocol he had been provided was. In other words, was he trained to wait until backup came on? What actions did he take when backup did arrive? There seems to be some evidence that even after backup arrived, he still didn't make the decision to go in. And I understand that these families would want to know if - feel that if maybe somebody had taken some action - I don't think they would have been able to avoid all the carnage, but certainly maybe some of it. And I think that's what's driving this.

KING: Peterson's lawyer says his client was not a caregiver. Does that seem like a solid defense, or the start of a solid defense in this case?

HIGGINS: It could be. Sure. I mean, one of the elements that they have to prove is that he demonstrated gross recklessness or wanton disregard for others or the safety of others I guess as far as a law enforcement officer. And he may not have had a duty as a caregiver for purposes of the second charge, which is just the regular child neglect. So that might be something that they have to focus on.

Of course, any defense attorney in this case is going to be also dealing with the emotional elements of this case. And even though they don't have a duty to prove anything at trial because of our Constitution, there's still a lot of pressure to come up with an explanation as to why Officer Peterson stayed behind or stayed back.

KING: Celeste Higgins of the University of Miami School of Law, thank you so much.

HIGGINS: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.