OUR POSITION: The plea deal Lee Coel worked out with 20th Judicial District prosecutors is surprising.
Mary Knowlton’s family, who suffered through almost three years of mental anguish awaiting justice for her death, was dealt a staggering blow Wednesday. State attorneys agreed to a sentence of probation rather than any jail time for Lee Coel, the Punta Gorda police officer who pulled the trigger and shot the retired librarian.
Coel was portraying the “bad guy” in a shoot-don’t-shoot scenario Knowlton had volunteered to engage in. His gun, however, did not contain blanks but rather real ammunition. When he cocked, aimed and fired at the 73-year-old Knowlton, she crumpled to the ground. She died on her way to the hospital, leaving members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, law enforcement and her husband, who witnessed the failed demonstration, in shock.
The tragedy resulted in charges against Coel and then-Police Chief Tom Lewis. Lewis was charged with misdemeanor culpable negligence, accused of not having safety procedures in place for that type of event, including not requiring anyone to check Coel’s gun, which was his personal weapon. Lewis was acquitted of the charge but was relieved of his job even as some supporters argued for him to be retained.
Coel, charged with second-degree manslaughter, and his attorneys spent the better part of the last three years wrangling over evidence and procedures and were able to get a change of venue to Lee County. The trial was finally scheduled to begin Oct. 22 with jury selection.
Knowlton’s family had little to say about the plea deal. Her husband, Gary, said he has spent the past years trying to heal.
During Wednesday’s court session, Coel described the terror he felt when he realized Knowlton had been shot. It was difficult not to feel compassion for him. He’s the only one who really knows the mental toll her death has taken on him and how he has dealt with it while awaiting trial.
His only legal punishment is that he will never be able to apply for a job in law enforcement and he has to serve 10 years of probation.
We believe the sentence was surprisingly lenient. Even a movie star, who paid to get her kid in college in a story that made national headlines, had to go to jail for two weeks. And no one was killed, or hurt, in that offense — although she did know what she was doing as opposed to Coel not knowing the gun had live bullets.
It seems unreal to us that no one involved in the fatal mistakes that led to Mary Knowlton’s death ever spent a day in jail or paid any fines, other than court costs and, of course, a $2 million settlement between the city and the family. A woman is dead, taken from her family in the blink of an eye and almost no punishment is dealt out.
Coel likely pays the price of this horrible, and very preventable mistake every day. The memories and guilt will be a yoke for the rest of his life. Perhaps that “punishment” is worse than any time he might spend in jail.