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Punta Gorda Police Chief on Trial for Citizen’s Academy Shooting

Michael Hirsh
The first witness to testify at the trial of suspended Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was Gary Knowlton, husband of Mary Knowlton, who was accidentally killed during a shoot/don’t shoot scenario at police headquaters last August.";

Testimony resumes Tuesday morning in the trial of suspended Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis. He’s charged with culpable negligence in the shooting death of 73-year-old Mary Knowlton during a shoot/don’t shoot scenario last August at Punta Gorda police headquarters.

During the first day of testimony, the prosecution called three citizens who witnessed the shooting, three  Punta Gorda police officers who were there, including the current interim chief, Jason Ciaschini, and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime scene technician who collected evidence on the night of the shooting. They also called Gary Knowlton, whose was there when his wife, Mary, was accidentally shot and killed.

Credit Michael Hirsh
Bailiff Carla Williams shows retired FDLE crime scene investigator Lee Dewey a box holding bullet casings that he found at the scene of the shooting of Mary Knowlton.

In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Russell focused on their theory of the case: that Chief Lewis had no policies or procedures in place for a demonstration that used actual firearms rather than so-called Simunitions which are like paintball guns. Further, Russell hammered on the fact that no one was assigned to check the weapon that was ultimately used to kill Mary Knowlton.

 “You’ll also hear that no one was designated as a safety officer, whose responsibility it would have been to check all firearms to make sure that the ammunition being used were actually blanks,” said Stephanie Russell. “No one was designated.”

When defense counsel Stephen Romine addressed the jury, he revealed a key element of his defense. That is, when Officer Lee Coel loaded his gun with so-called wadcutters rather than blanks, he defeated the entire safety check process,even though witnesses would testify later on Monday that there was no safety check process for Coel’s weapon. The wadcutters were neither approved nor provided by the Punta Gorda Police Department.

Credit Michael Hirsh
During his opening argument in the trial of suspended Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis for culpable negligence, Defense attorney Stephen Romine demonstrated for the jury how Officer Lee Coel was pointing his .38-caliber revolver during the shoot/don’t shoot scenario.

“But what Lee Coel did, the evidence is going to show you, is that he defeated the entire safety check process by introducing something so archaic, so unknown to this culture of law enforcement, that even if they had done five checks of his gun, three checks,you’re going to hear testimony from the officers that were doing the checks, if I had looked at it, I would have said, ‘No, it’s a blank. Go’ Said Romine.

Credit Michael Hirsh
Interim Punta Gorda Police Chief Jason Ciaschini is cross-examined by defense attorney Stephen Romine on the first day of testimony in the trial of Tom Lewis.

The defense contends not only was it not Chief Tom Lewis’s fault that Lee Coel loaded his revolver with unauthorized ammunition, but that Lewis had the right to believe that his subordinates would obey  department policies and perform  the way they were trained. Monday’s final witness was interim Chief Jason Ciaschini, a twenty-year veteran of the force who  acknowledged on the stand he’s friends with Lewis.  Assistant State Attorney Russell concluded her redirect examination with this question:

“Do officers always comply with policies?,” asked Russell.

“No,” said Ciaschini.

The prosecution continues presenting its case Tuesday.