Police chief on trial after librarian killed in training demo

puntagordacover

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis at his trial Monday (Photo: Carlos R. Munoz/Herald Tribune)

Five officers testified Tuesday that nobody checked whether a gun had blanks before a community demonstration that ended with a librarian dead.

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial for a misdemeanor charge of culpable negligence for the Aug. 9, 2016 shooting that killed 73-year-old Mary Knowlton, according to the Herald Tribune.

The “shoot/don’t shoot” training exercise was meant to show city business leaders how little time officers have to react in a use-of-force incident. But instead of a simulated weapon, officer Lee Coel used a real gun. And instead of blanks, the Smith & Wesson revolver was loaded with live ammo.

Knowlton, who was randomly selected for the exercise, was struck twice and died. Officer Coel faces manslaughter charges and up to 30 years in prison. Lewis faces 60 days behind bars if convicted. Six jurors and one alternate are hearing his case.

In opening statements, prosecutor Stephanie Russell said Coel received three boxes of ammo from former Punta Gorda spokeswoman Lt. Katie Heck. She told Coel she thought they were blanks, but said, “you need to check these.”

Ammo used by officers are supposed to be issued or approved. The bullets that ended up in Coel’s personal revolver, and which struck Knowlton, were “wadcutter” rounds. Wadcutters have flat ends like blanks, but are heavier. Russell said nobody checked the gun before the demonstration to ensure it was loaded with blanks.

“It’s everyone in uniforms’ responsibility to check,” she said at the end of her opening statements.

On Tuesday, Officer Jeff Woodard, who resigned earlier this month, testified he’d seen Coel’s gun and thought it could only fire blanks. He said he didn’t check the gun.

Officer Brandon Angelini testified that “every officer is a safety officer.” Russell pointed out that if everyone was in charge of safety, then it’s possible everyone presumed somebody else had ensured proper safety measures were taken.

Heck, who supervised Coel at the time, testified that she assigned people to the demo who had done it before and that none of them were specifically tasked with ensuring safety.

“We already had a set parameter for what was supposed to happen,” Heck said. “I didn’t think about the set-up because they had done it before.”

Prosecutors rested their case Wednesday after jurors heard audio of Lewis where he explained his role in organizing the “shoot/don’t shoot” exercise. On Thursday, testimony on the wadcutter ammo is expected.

Lewis has been on paid leave since February.