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Jury Finds Punta Gorda Police Chief Not Guilty in Death of Volunteer

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The jury has come back with a verdict in the trial of Punta Gorda, Florida Police Chief Tom Lewis, finding him not guilty of culpable negligence for the death of Mary Knowlton, 73, a volunteer killed during a police demonstration gone horribly wrong. Knowlton was one of 35 people participating in the department’s Citizen Police Academy, and was on a tour that included a “shoot/don’t shoot” simulation scenario.

During the simulation, meant to show the dangerous situations officers face, Officer Lee Coel fired his weapon, which was supposed to contain blanks. Instead, it was loaded with live ammunition, and a bullet ricocheted and struck Knowlton, killing her.

While Coel will face his own trial for manslaughter, Chief Lewis was only facing a misdemeanor for culpable negligence. The law states that if a person “through culpable negligence, exposes another person to personal injury,” they are guilty. A second-degree misdemeanor, it carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.

The vagueness of the statute made it a nuanced decision, even though jurors didn’t deliberate for very long.

On the one hand, the the defense argued that Lewis wasn’t the one who fired the gun, he wasn’t the one who loaded the gun, and it was not foreseeable to Lewis that this simulation exercise would result in a person’ death because a trained police officer fired a loaded weapon. These simulation exercises had been conducted in the past, without incident.

On the other hand, the prosecution maintained that Lewis did not put in place proper safety precautions. Not only that, they said, none of this would have happened if they didn’t have such a risky exercise to begin with. Lewis was the one who suggested using a real weapon instead of a toy or prop, in order to create a scarier, more realistic situation, the prosecution argued. And even with wanting a real gun, no one was put in place to make sure what weapon was being used or how it was loaded. Having a scenario with a real weapon being fired in close proximity to unprotected civilians posed unnecessary risks.

In the end, the jury felt that the circumstances didn’t warrant convicting the chief and acquitted him.

 

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