By ANNE EASKER
PUNTA GORDA — The trial of the Punta Gorda police officer who apparently unwittingly shot and killed a retired librarian in Punta Gorda has officially been moved to Lee County.
Lee Coel is charged with manslaughter in the death of Mary Knowlton, after fatally firing live ammunition rather than blanks.
Coel is charged with negligent manslaughter after fatally shooting Knowlton during a community demonstration on Aug. 9, 2016, for members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce.
Playing the “bad guy” in a role-playing scenario, Coel fired what he believed were blanks at the Knowlton.
His pistol was actually loaded with live wadcutter rounds, an ammunition intended to punch holes in targets.
Knowlton, 73, died on the way to the hospital.
His defense attorneys have been fighting for months for a change of venue.
While they initially wanted to move the trial out of the 20th Judicial Circuit that covers Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties, they agreed in May to accept Lee County as a compromise.
A defense motion stated because of negative social media comments on Facebook pages of both the Punta Gorda Police Department, WINK News, and other media, “disdain for (Coel) has clearly metastasized over social media and infected everyone who has come into contact with it” and therefore, the “only reasonable and prudent course of action is to move the trial of this case out of the 20th Judicial Circuit.”
An order filed July 1 by Judge Margaret Steinbeck states the motion is “granted to the extent that the trial will be heard and a jury selected from the citizens of Lee County” but “denied without prejudice as to the motion to move the trial outside of the Twentieth Circuit.”
The defense may refile if a jury cannot be selected in Lee County.
The trial is currently set for Oct. 15, but the defense recently filed a motion to reschedule.