Fla. officer who fatally shot woman in academy exercise won't serve time
Lee Coel sentenced to 10 years probation, must pay restitution to victim's husband
Carlos R. Munoz
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Lee Coel, the former Punta Gorda police officer accused of shooting and killing retired librarian Mary Knowlton in 2016 during a flawed use-of-force demonstration at the police department, pleaded no contest to second-degree manslaughter Wednesday and will serve no jail time.
Instead, as part of a plea agreement, Lee County Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck withheld adjudication of guilt and sentenced Coel to 10 years of probation. He must also make restitution to the victim's husband, Gary Knowlton, and has agreed not to seek employment as a police officer.
Coel could have faced up to 15 years in prison if the deal had not been accepted and he were found guilty.
Gary Knowlton and son Steven first learned of the plea deal Tuesday night from a victim advocate — not a prosecutor. They came to the hearing at the Lee County Justice Center to state their strong opposition to the deal in the court.
"Our family categorically rejects this plea deal. We are devastated — devastated and outraged," Steven Knowlton told the Herald-Tribune Tuesday night. "The whole time — since 2016 — they told us they had a good case and that they would get a guilty verdict. I guess the good old boy network took over."
In court Wednesday, Steven Knowlton said after learning of his mother's killing, "I was in shock!"
"How did my mom get on the other side of the gun?" he asked. "How does that happen in America? If we had gotten an apology from Lee it would have made a helluva difference. I won't harbor anger toward Lee Coel. I believe there are others involved here. This makes a statement to the citizens that your safety doesn't matter. You can have a circus, entertain your citizens and get killed. It doesn't matter. ... Justice will probably never be done. I will forgive someday with the help of God."
Gary Knowlton said during the first year after his wife's killing he "wasn't a very good person."
"I wasn't helping my kids," he told the court. "I should have been more worried about my boys than myself. If you don't help your kids heal, things will only get worse. All I've tried to do in the past couple of years is heal."
Coel, wearing a gray suit, blue shirt and blue tie, and flanked by two defense attorneys, cried as Knowlton's widower and son testified.
Coel told the court that "not a day goes by that I don't replay this in my head."
"I can remember trying to — trying to save Mrs. Knowlton and not knowing what happened," Coel said. "I remember my hands covered in blood as the chief told me she didn't make it. It felt like someone kicked the legs out from under me and I just collapsed. Steve Knowlton said for me to apologize for what happened. I don't know if they'll ever truly forgive me or I'll ever forgive myself for what happened.
"Since Aug. 9 2016, I haven't had a single night of un-medicated sleep. I have constant night terrors," Coel said. "For a year, I wouldn't leave the house. I don't know how I'll ever recover from this accident. Withholding adjudication gives me a chance to start a new life and gives closure to the Knowlton family."
After Coel finished, Judge Steinbeck said, "This is a very sad case."
"There are no winners in this courtroom," she said. "I do find that it is appropriate to withhold adjudication of guilt and sentence him in accordance with the plea agreement. I do find the crime was committed in an unsophisticated manner. It was an isolated incident for then 28-year-old Lee Coel. The defendant has no prior record. This crime was the result of terrible judgment rather than any evil conditions. The court finds he (Coel) is extremely remorseful in regards to the entire situation and loss of Mary Knowlton."