Victim’s widower testifies in trial of Punta Gorda chief

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Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. A sign on a door at the Punta Gorda Police Department called it the safest place in the city, Jack Pryor testified Monday.

But it was the lack of safety for the 73-year-old retired librarian killed in the August 2016 citizens academy shooting that brought Pryor and others to court for the opening day of the trial of police chief Tom Lewis.

The chief is facing a second-degree misdemeanor culpable negligence charge in the death of Mary Knowlton. Former officer Lee Coel, the trigger man in the shooting, is months away from trial on his first-degree felony manslaughter charge.

Pryor was among the witnesses to the shooting who testified Monday. So was the widower of Knowlton, who was composed as he took the stand and recounted the night his wife was slain in the “shoot-don’t shoot” training exercise.

Gary Knowlton testified that he wasn’t sure whether Knowlton had ever touched a gun before the class.

“I don’t know for sure, but she never owned one or never had any interest in having one,” he said.

Witness John Wright testified about Lewis’ immediate reaction to the shooting.

“He was shocked by what happened,” Wright said. “Clearly shocked, visibly shocked.”

Prosecutors contended a lack of safety policies set forth by Lewis contributed to Knowlton’s death.

“Tom Lewis was involved in almost every stage of the academy,” Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Russell said.

Coel used his personal revolver, which was loaded with live ammunition. Lewis changed department safety protocols after the shooting, but defense attorney Stephen Romine argued that adequate rules were already in place and simply weren’t followed.

“What Lee Coel did, the evidence is going to show you, is that he defeated, he defeated, the entire safety check process,” Romine said.

Lewis previously filed two unsuccessful motions to drop the misdemeanor charge, arguing that Coel broke department protocol during the training exercise.

WINK News reporter Morgan Frances shows more testimony, including statements from a Punta Gorda officer who said he didn’t inspect Coel’s weapon because he assumed someone else did:

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