The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (4)

Readers of Policy of Truth know that I’ve been doing a series of posts on what I call “The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Scot Peterson was the School Resource Office, or armed law enforcement officer, assigned to guard Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, scene of what’s now known as the Parkland shooting of February 2018. Peterson is often described in press accounts as having “hid” or “done nothing” for the duration of the shooting, and has widely been ridiculed as a “coward” as a result. He was arrested in early June of this year, briefly held in jail, and charged with several counts of child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury. Here’s a link to the arrest warrant detailing the charges against him (41 page PDF).

I’ve written a series of posts taking issue with the moral accusations and criminal charges brought against Peterson, and with press coverage of the case. Here’s the first post, the second, and the third. I probably should have separated the book announcement from the material on the Peterson case in this fourth post, but at any rate, the second half of that post alludes to the Peterson case, as does the (still ongoing) conversation in the comments.

Knowing what I now know, I would dispute the widely-believed claims that Peterson “hid,” that he “did nothing,” that he was a “coward,” or that he is guilty of any of the criminal charges brought against him. I would go further: though widely and euphemistically described as “unprecedented,” the criminal charges against Peterson strike me as bizarre and politically motivated. And while I’m not a lawyer, I find it hard to see how the evidence for the charges satisfied the probable cause standard required for arrest. Be that as it may, if found guilty, Peterson faces the simultaneously ludicrous and sobering prospect of 90-some years’ imprisonment.

Ninety+ years’ imprisonment and undeserved disgrace piled on top of the trauma of the event itself are not exactly trivial matters. But as I see it, the significance of the Peterson case extends well beyond the immediate stakes for Peterson’s reputation and liberty, important as they are. For one thing, the case raises questions about our expectations of law enforcement. What exactly do we expect of the people we employ to “serve and protect” us, and on what basis? Beyond that, it raises questions about moral judgment and moral discourse. When is it legitimate to judge someone a coward, and call him one?  How do we acquire standing to judge professionals who do what few of us are technically or psychologically capable of doing? And it raises questions about prosecutorial discretion and the rule of law. Can a child negligence statute justifiably be used to prosecute a law enforcement officer during a shoot out? How do we deal with the government officials responsible for such outlandish interpretations of the law?

Peterson’s arrest back in June was followed by weeks of press coverage, the vast majority of it hostile to him. Almost all of it took for granted that Peterson knew from the outset where the Parkland shooter was, and that he cowered in fear and hid for forty-five minutes as the shooter went on his shooting rampage. Given these factual assumptions, almost all of it concluded that Peterson was a “coward,” questioning only whether or not he should be held criminally liable for his cowardice. After weeks of this sort of thing, the press coverage dried up and stopped. You’d almost have gotten the impression that the case itself had been resolved, the verdict being that Scot Peterson was more guilty of the Parkland massacre than its perpetrator.

Not that you’d know this from national press coverage, but just last week, Peterson’s defense team released a 65 page brief rebutting the criminal charges against him, and calling for dismissal of the charges. The brief deals narrowly but comprehensively with the legal issues, leaving the broader moral issues to the rest of us. By my count, the brief has been mentioned so far only by a tiny handful of news outlets, most of them in the south Florida area. Evidently, consumers of mainstream press reporting are more interested in airing accusations (however irresponsible or outlandish) than in reporting the response to them: Les Miserables aside, incrimination seems to sell better than exculpation in our culture.

I haven’t read everything relevant to the case that needs reading, and can’t claim to have mastered every last nuance relevant to it. But I think it’s safe to say that the standard line on Peterson–that he knew the shooter’s location, that he did nothing as the shooter went on his rampage, that he cowered in fear, that he’s a coward, that he’s criminally negligent, that he perjured himself–is all highly disputable, to put it mildly. None of these claims are the self-evidencies that have been made of them. In fact, many of them flout the available evidence in flagrant ways. But take a look at this first round defense of Peterson, and decide for yourself.

P.S. Full disclosure and a request: As some readers may already know, I’ve been personally in touch with Peterson, and have learned that his defense team is looking for legal scholars interested in writing amicus curiae briefs in Peterson’s defense. If you’re interested (and qualified), feel free either to contact the defense team listed in the brief above, or to mention your interest in the comments so that I can connect you to them.

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