Citizens academy shooting victim's son: "Everybody dropped the ball"

- One officer provided the bullets and another officer fired the gun. Everyone who was there the night Mary Knowlton was shot to death thought he was firing blanks.

Those were just some of the mistakes that led to the retired librarian's death at a citizens police academy last August, but during the third day of Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis’ trial, a law enforcement expert told a jury the problems didn’t end there.

"I had, after watching the pictures and videos, had safety concerns as to how it was performed,” Southwest Florida Public Service Academy’s Gene Sims told the courtroom.

“And what were those safety concerns?” Sims was asked.

“There was the fact that there was a live firearm in the scenario. The placement of the spectators in the scenario and the distance from the scenario to the observers,” Sims added.

Chief Lewis is charged with culpable negligence. Prosecutors say he was the man in charge of the system that allowed all the mistakes.

The defense, meanwhile, says the only one to blame is Officer Lee Coel, who fired the fatal shots. Coel is charged with manslaughter but a trial date hasn't been set.

Mary Knowlton's husband and son have been watching testimony every day - reliving the worst night of their lives. Last August, just after his mother’s death, Steve Knowlton was understanding, saying it was a mistake.  

But as the months have gone by, he says he now feels a major injustice was done to his mother.  

“She'd always find the loneliest kid and put her arm around them and make them feel loved,” Steve said. “My mom was such a huge part of our lives.”

Steve Knowlton says his mother's heart was made of gold. She was the family rock and their lives were shattered last August 9 when she was unexpectedly taken.

“My mom was there to support the police,” Steve said, adding his parents attended the citizens police academy as a way to show their support after a rash of police killings across the nation.

Steve Knowlton says his dad didn't want to go to the citizens police academy that night, but Mary said they needed to support their local police. She never planned on being part of any role-playing exercises, but when chosen at random for a "shoot, don't shoot" demonstration, she didn't back down.

As the scenario unfolded, Officer Lee Coel fired several shots, believing his gun was loaded with blanks. Two live rounds ricocheted off a car and struck Mary, who died a short time later.

At first, Steve forgave Officer Coel.

“I assumed this was an honorable person who had just made a huge mistake. I assumed the department was, like, somewhat on the level, not just a circus,” Steve said.

But as time has passed, his opinion has changed.

“Lee Coel was probably the worst officer they could have picked to play the role, the only role that required a gun or use the blanks. He's the one, of all the officers there, picked to play that role,” Steve said.

For the last three days, he has attended the trial of Chief Tom Lewis. He's heard the testimony from one officer after another. He believes more of them should be charged, but that blame is being spread so thin, it protects those who were at fault.

“I thought everybody dropped the ball and I almost believe that some of these officers and the Lieutenant, the officers took a little bit of a fall so they're not charged with anything. They can take a fall to take the pressure off Lewis,” Steve said.

Getting the call that his mother died was the worst news he has ever received. And sitting through this trial is the hardest thing he's ever had to do. He can only hope his mother will receive the justice she deserves.

“It’s hard to watch this because I feel like it's dehumanized her,” he said. “What a wonderful woman she was and want a horrible tragedy to a legacy she left here on earth.”

No matter the outcome of this trial, Steve says he will continue fighting for justice for his mother.

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