Punta Gorda police chief on trial for failing to prevent accidental shooting death at Citizens Academy

Police Chief Tom Lewis charged with culpable negligence

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Punta Gorda police chief is on trial for failing to prevent a woman’s death at the police department.

Chief Tom Lewis has been charged with culpable negligence in the accidental shooting of Mary Knowlton at a Citizens Academy.

Chief Tom Lewis speaking with an attorney.

But the defense argues there was no way he could’ve known that a unique type of ammo was used in the gun.

Last August, 73-year-old librarian Mary Knowlton joined a ‘shoot don’t shoot’ exercise with Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel. The officer meant to fire blank bullets, but accidentally fired a live round which ricocheted off a car hood and killed Knowlton.

This week, Chief Tom Lewis is on trial, because prosecutors say he deserves some of the blame.

“No one was designated as a safety officer, whose responsibility would’ve been to check all firearms to make sure that the ammunition being used were actually blanks,” prosecutor Stephanie Russell said.

Mary Knowlton’s husband also briefly took the stand.

“She never owned [a gun] and never had interest in owning one,” said Gary Knowlton.

“Mary Knowlton, a civilian, who had never held a firearm in her life, was placed in a scenario with a trained law enforcement officer with a real firearm,” said Russell.

“Tom Lewis, also being a firearms instructor, recklessly switched blank ammunition, instead of using those detergent pellets so as to cause more impact [during the training exercise,]” Russell added.

“The state is not in any point saying that Tom Lewis is a bad guy. He never wanted any of this to happen, he never wanted Mary Knowlton to be hurt,” said Russell.

“Lots of errors were made on August 9. Tom Lewis showed a reckless disregard for Mary Knowlton. He knew, authorized, and sanctioned the use of a real firearm to make more of an impact,” Russell said.

Defense Attorney Stephen Romine pointed out the department had blank bullets set aside for this event, but Officer Coel decided instead to use some blanks he received as a gift from a fellow officer.

No one realized though, that the supposed ‘blanks’ were actually wad-cutters, which are bullets that look like blanks.

FDLE photo which shows a wad cutter on the right, the type of bullet used in the accidental shooting death of Mary Knowlton.

“You hold a blank, you hold a wad cutter, they’re both flat on the top,” explained Romine.

Wad cutters are used in revolvers and are typically seen in competitions with paper targets.

Romine explained that they haven’t been used by police officers in about 30 years, so most officers nowadays are not familiar with them.

“Even if they had done five checks of his gun, three checks, you’re going to hear testimony from the officers that were doing the checks, ‘If I had looked at it, I would admit – no it’s a blank. Go,” Romine said.

The defense says Lewis did everything in his power to ensure a safe environment.

“He doesn’t take the citizens into the armory and say wait here while I do checks. He has other people to do that, and he has a right to expect they’re going to,” said Romine.

“People have jobs and duties to do and you’re going to hear from the evidence that Tom Lewis as the chief has the right to expect they’re going to do their duties,” added Romine.

If found guilty, Chief Lewis could face up to 60 days in jail. Officer Coel has been charged with manslaughter.

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