Wed, May 31, 2023 1:29 PM
By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Jury selection in the groundbreaking trial of a former sheriff's deputy charged with failing to confront the killer of 14 students and three staff members at a Florida high school five years ago got off to a speedy start Wednesday, with the preliminary round concluding in just one day.
Circuit Judge Martin Fein had tentatively scheduled three days of preliminary jury selection, seeking 50 candidates whose schedules and employment would allow possibly two months of service at the trial of former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson.
But by the end of Wednesday, the judge ended the process after finding 55 finalists out of 300 prospects interviewed.
Those 55 will be brought back Monday for questioning by prosecutors and Peterson's attorney about their knowledge of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, and whether they can be fair in judging Peterson's alleged refusal to confront shooter Nikolas Cruz at the scene.
Six jurors and four alternates will be chosen. Florida is one of six states that allow six-member juries for trials other than capital murder. The others are Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts and Utah. All other states use 12-member juries in felony trials.
If all goes according to plan, opening statements would be given the middle of next week.
While Fein tried to dissuade additional comments Wednesday, two prospective jurors demanded to speak to him outside of the presence of the others. One said he already knew he couldn't be fair because he considers Peterson “a coward.” Another said his boss's daughter was one of the 17 wounded in the shooting. Both were dismissed.
Peterson, 60, is charged with seven counts of felony child neglect involving four students killed and three wounded on the top floor of a three-story classroom building. He becomes the first U.S. law enforcement officer prosecuted for his alleged actions and inaction during a school shooting. Texas authorities are still considering charges for the officers who failed last year to confront the gunman at an Uvalde elementary school who killed 19 children and two teachers.
On Feb. 14, 2018, Peterson approached the building with his gun drawn 73 seconds before Cruz reached the third floor, but instead of entering, he backed away as gunfire sounded. He has said he thought the shots were coming from outside the building, perhaps from a sniper. His attorney Mark Eiglarsh says he will call 22 witnesses who also thought the shots came from outside.
Eiglarsh also argues that under Florida law, Peterson had no legal obligation to enter the building and confront Cruz.
Peterson is also charged with three counts of misdemeanor culpable negligence for the adults shot on the third floor, including a teacher and an adult student who died. He also faces a perjury charge for allegedly lying to investigators. He could get nearly a century in prison if convicted on the child neglect counts and lose his $104,000 annual pension.
Prosecutors did not charge Peterson in connection with the 11 killed and 13 wounded on the first floor before he arrived at the building. No one was shot on the second floor.
Peterson retired shortly after the shooting and was fired retroactively.
Cruz pleaded guilty in 2021 to the killings. In a penalty trial last year, his jury couldn't unanimously agree on whether he deserved the death penalty. The 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student was then sentenced to life in prison.
In Uvalde, a report by lawmakers put nearly 400 officers at Robb Elementary School shortly after the shooting began from an array of federal, state and local agencies, many of them heavily armed.
They waited more than an hour to confront and kill the 18-year-old gunman. At least five officers were put under investigation after the shooting and were either fired or resigned, although a full accounting is unclear.
The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Col. Steve McCraw largely blamed Uvalde’s school police chief, who was later fired by trustees.
Associated Press reporter Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.