Police chief found not guilty of negligence for fatal training demo

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis during the trial.

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis during the trial.

A jury Thursday found Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis not guilty of a misdemeanor charge in the shooting death of a spectator at a community demonstration last summer in Florida.

The jury deliberated for about three hours before finding Lewis not guilty of culpable negligence in the death of Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old librarian, according to WINK-TV.

Knowlton was one of about 30 community members watching a “shoot/don’t shoot” training exercise on Aug. 9, 2016. She was selected at random to participate in the exercise. While she held a blue simulated weapon, Officer Lee Coel used a Smith & Wesson revolver loading with wadcutters — bullets that have flat ends similar to blanks. Knowlton was struck twice by gunfire and died.

Several current and former officers testified this week that they didn’t do a safety check on Coel’s gun before the exercise. Knowlton’s son, Steve, was upset when the judge in the case ruled Thursday in favor of a defense motion requiring the state to prove that Lewis knew, or should have known, that great bodily harm would come to Mary Knowlton.

“They threw a curveball at us at the last minute and added another stipulation adding to the definition of culpable negligence — which I don’t think is right,” said Steve Knowlton after the verdict. “You don’t change the rules of the game right at the last minute.”

“Obviously, Tom Lewis didn’t want anybody to get hurt that day. It was supposed to be a fun event. I understand that. But it was reckless and careless,” he said.

Lewis has been on paid leave since February, where he’ll remain until an internal investigation is complete. Coel has been fired by the city and charged with first degree manslaughter. He’s set to face trial next year. Steve Knowlton says he still can’t believe nobody checked the gun.

“Obviously, my mom was murdered, and it’s not considered that,” he said. “No check on the gun? It just makes no sense, no sense at all. You do this thorough check on this silly little gun that my mom is going to use for the safety of Lee Coel. And nobody checks the gun that’s going to kill her?

“Whether they’re guilty or innocent in this trial, they still have the blood of my mom on their hands,” he said.