“Whether they’re guilty or innocent in this trial, they still have the blood of my mom on their hands.”
Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was found not guilty on charges of negligence on Thursday, after the fatal shooting of a spectator during a community demonstration last summer.
Mary Knowlton was a 73-year-old librarian who was among about 30 other community members who came to watch a “shoot/don’t shoot” training exercise on August 9, 2016. She was a participant who was selected at random to join in on the exercise. All she had to do was hold a blue, simulated weapon while Officer Lee Coel acted out the scene. He was holding a Wesson revolver that was, unknowingly to him, loaded with wadcutters instead of blanks. Wadcutters are bullets that have flat ends and look similar to blanks.
As the officer pulled the trigger, Mary Knowlton was struck twice 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.
Steve said, “Obviously, my mom was murdered, and it’s not considered that. 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?” He continued, “Whether they’re guilty or innocent in this trial, they still have the blood of my mom on their hands.”