Punta Gorda chief not guilty in negligence case

- Jurors in Punta Gorda have decided a police chief was not criminally negligent in the shooting death of a retired librarian last August. They acquitted Chief Tom Lewis on Thursday after hearing four days of testimony regarding Mary Knowlton's death. 

Knowlton, 73, was killed last August during a citizen law enforcement class at the Punta Gorda Police Department. She was picked to take place in a shoot-don't-shoot scenario, but Officer Lee Coel accidentally killed her when he fired at her, thinking he was shooting blanks.

Coel will go on trial later, but this week, his police chief was facing culpable negligence charges for overseeing the department.

Prosecutors said even though Chief Lewis did not mean for this to happen, he's partly responsible because of the lack of safety checks.

But the defense team argued these charges did not apply to the chief.  They said he never chose to put Knowlton at risk.

"Tom Lewis had a duty that day to make sure they were safe,” prosecutor Stephanie Russell said. “Instead, he showed a disregard for safety, human life, and Mary Knowlton, who was selected that day."

"Tom Lewis didn't expose Mary Knowlton to anything; Lee Coel did,” countered defense attorney Stephen Romine. “As you know, there is no dispute in this case. And both of those broke the policies of his agency. That every witness that was asked this question: did he have a right to expect his officers to follow the law? The answer is yes."

Closing arguments wrapped up this morning after Chief Lewis declined to take the stand. Jurors deliberated for three hours before returning the not-guilty verdict. 

If found guilty, he could have faced up to 60 days in jail.  His employment status is still up in the air, though.

"Chief Lewis' future employment status will be determined by the internal affairs investigation, which is underway. We don't anticipate it will be a lengthy process and we will provide updates as soon as possible," city spokesperson Sandi Poreda stated. "Furthermore, when the internal affairs investigation has concluded, the file will become public record once any necessary redactions have been made. Chief Lewis will remain on paid administrative leave until the internal investigation is complete."

Officer Lee Coel, meanwhile, faces a charge of manslaughter. His trial date has not yet been set.

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