Punta Gorda, FL — In August 2016, Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel gunned down 73-year-old Mary Knowlton in front of dozens of stunned onlookers, during a demonstration about police use of deadly force. More than six months passed while law enforcement conducted their investigation and it was announced in 2017 that Coel was being charged. However, thanks to a corrupt system, Coel never went to jail and he's been living a normal life despite laying waste to the lives of the Knowlton family.
Nearly 6 years after Coel killed Knowlton, her family is still seeking justice. This week, they found out that they will have to wait longer for that justice to come.
In 2017, Coel was charged with manslaughter, a first-degree felony and took a plea deal in 2019 which allowed him to avoid jail in exchange for 10 years of probation. This week, he went to court to ask the judge to let him off of that probation — 7 years early.
What's more, in his sentencing, Coel was ordered to pay restitution to Knowlton's children but he has yet to do so.
WINK News reports that as part of the deal, Coel, whose case was moved to Lee County, will plead no contest to second degree manslaughter and receive 10 years probation and not serve any prison time in the death of Mary Knowlton.
In August of 2016, Mary Knowlton signed up to be a student in the citizen police academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department, intended to show residents of the small town why and how officers do what they do.
After the group of 35 participants toured the police station and spoke with officers — a popular public relations tactic used by departments across the country amid the epidemic of police violence — Knowlton and another person decided to volunteer for a demonstration.
To illustrate how and when officers decide to use lethal force, the officer had the two students role-play a scenario putting citizens in cops’ shoes.
According to Charlotte Sun photographer, Sue Paquin, who was there to cover the event, Knowlton played the role of a victim, while the officer played “bad guy.”
Such a simulation would ordinarily not pose any danger to participants, as weapons would either be fake or empty.
Not this time.
When the officer fired, live ammunition hit Knowlton — several times.
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The elderly wife and mother was promptly rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, but was pronounced dead.
“I always wanted to go back in time. And come back to this day before make sure she’s never there,” Steven Knowlton, Mary's son said. “Make sure the police department knows that he’s got real bullets and make sure nobody gets hurt.”
As the Free Thought Project previously reported, Coel had no business being there that day, much less possessing a badge.
According to WINK, Coel received two excessive force complaints as a rookie officer with Miramar police in 2012. One was for pulling a handcuffed man by the ankles from the back of his police vehicle, and the other was for nearly suffocating a suspect by turning the heat on high and not rolling down the windows, according to media reports.
He was forced to resign from his job.
Punta Gordo Police Chief Tom Lewis knew of Coel's trouble and accepted him anyway, something 20 other law enforcement agencies refused to do.
After only a short time on the Punta Gorda Police Department, Coel was captured on his own dashcam forcing his K9 to maul an unarmed and surrendering man for riding his bicycle with no lights.
Because the man was in a diminished mental state, he was not complying precisely and as quickly as Coel demanded, so he released his dog. For the next several minutes, the dog tore into the man as he screamed in agony.
About one minute into the mauling, in between shouts of "Stop Resisting," officer Coel tells the dog, "Good boy," as it tears the man's flesh from his arm.
Coel was never disciplined for the gruesome and torturous act. However, he was sued by the victim. He was also sued by the family of Knowlton and the taxpayers were held liable for the sum of $2 million in November of 2017 — although no amount of money could possibly take away the pain of losing your loved one to the barrel of a public servant's gun.
For now, Coel's blue privilege continues to protect him and he's yet to be held accountable to any degree.
“It’s kind of like PTSD, you wake up and I picture my mom sitting there spun around with a bullet in her in her shoulder,” Steven said. “And this a horror that was she was probably feeling it just it overwhelms me. And it seems to get worse every year.”