Former officer accused of manslaughter denied motion to recuse judge

Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
FILE Photo of former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel and Librarian Mary Knowlton from December 2016. Credit: WINK News.

A former police officer accused of killing a woman during a training demonstration in 2016 wanted the judge assigned to his trial removed. But the request has been denied.

On Monday, June 3, former Officer Lee Coel was denied the motion filed on his behalf to recuse Judge Magaret O. Steinbeck of the 20th Judicial Circuit Court for Charlotte County from his trial.

The former member of Punt Gorda Police Department is accused of killing 73-year-old Mary Knowlton during a citizen police academy training exercise in a “shoot, don’t shoot” scenario in August 2016.

According to the defense motion, Coel’s attorneys originally filed the motion on his behalf May 31. One of the defenses’ arguments for the recusal of the judge was related to a previous motion to change the venue of the trial due to “an extraordinary and intense amount of electronic and print media attention.”

The defense feels news reports related to Knowlton’s murder and an incident when Coel used a K9 unit dog in an arrest has generated a negative image in his defense that is unjustified.

The judge already granted the defense’s request to dismiss any mention of a 2015 incident that involved Coel releasing his K9 on a man riding his bicycle with no lights.

MORE: Man sues Punta Gorda police over K-9 takedown

While the state wants to keep the trial in Charlotte County, the defense argued jurors would have a bias due the amount of pre-trial publicity of the case. In the motion to move the venue, the defense cited Steinbeck for acknowledging that and considering the trial be moved to either Lee or Collier counties as possibilities previously.

But the defense feels all three counties in Southwest Florida are unfit due to being “pervasively exposed to the circumstances of this case that prejudice, bias and preconceived opinions are the natural result.”

Ultimately, the judge denied Coel’s motion to have her recuse herself from the trial.

Coel is charged with Manslaughter By Culpable Negligence.


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