Punta Gorda police chief acquitted in citizens academy shooting death trial

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Former Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. Police Chief Tom Lewis was not responsible for the actions resulting in the shooting death of a 73-year-old retired librarian during an August 2016 exercise at a citizens academy class, a jury determined on Thursday.

Lewis was charged with culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor. The six-person jury deliberated for about three hours.

Former officer Lee Coel shot and killed Knowlton in a “shoot, don’t shoot” scenario during a training exercise. Coel is charged with first-degree manslaughter and will face trial next year.

The city placed Lewis on paid administrative leave the day after he was charged, and he’ll remain on leave until an internal investigation is complete, city spokeswoman Sandi Poreda said.

Central to the Lewis trial was whether Lewis had adequate safety protocols in place, and whether Coel violated those policies.

The defense rested Thursday morning without Lewis ever taking the stand.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday after the jury heard audio of a phone conversation between Lewis and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator.

Lewis told the investigator he was involved in multiple aspects of the demonstration, but he also said former Lt. Katie Heck was in charge of the event.

Coel used his personal weapon loaded with live ammunition, as opposed to blanks, during the deadly training exercise.

Gene Sims, a former police academy instructor, took the stand Wednesday and said Lewis was responsible because of his position of authority within the department.

“You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility,” Sims said.

Lewis filed multiple motions to drop the charge against him, all of which were unsuccessful.

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