Ex-cop who shot and killed retired librarian during training demo wants off probation early

By: Lee Williams

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Former Punta Gorda officer Lee Coel now wants to be a lawyer.

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Mary Knowlton doubles over moments after she was shot by former Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel. (All photos courtesy of Florida Department of Law Enforcement.)

Coel wasn’t fired until a year after he killed Knowlton. In 2017, while his case was moving slowly through the legal system, Coel sued the city for denying him a disability pension. He claimed he suffered PTSD as a result of the killing and was later awarded more than $12,000 in compensation.

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In October 2019, as part of a no-jail plea deal, Coel pleaded no-contest to Second-Degree Manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years of probation. He could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Knowlton’s husband Gary, who has since died, later accepted a $2 million payment from the City’s insurance fund, but the city did not admit any guilt or responsibility when they issued the payment.

Coel wants his probation terminated

After serving just one-quarter of his sentence, Coel now wants his probation terminated. There will be a hearing July 25 before Lee County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Steinbeck, to determine whether Coel’s probation will end early. Steinbeck is the same judge who sentenced Coel to probation rather than prison.

According to court documents, Coel has obtained a law degree since the killing, but any state bar association will likely deny him membership because of his status as a probationer.

“Not a day passes where Mr. Coel does not think about the effect his actions had on others, including the Knowlton family, the City of Punta Gorda, and the lives of those who know and love him,” Coel’s motion states. “Mr. Coel respectfully requests this Court grant his Motion for Early Termination. Granting the instant Motion will give Mr. Coel the best opportunity to be accepted into his chosen profession, allowing him to better himself, his community, and the legal profession, using his past to better the future.”

Mary Knowlton’s family objects

In 2019, Knowlton’s family strongly opposed Coel’s no-jail plea deal. Today, they strongly oppose ending his probation early, especially since he has served just one-quarter of his sentence.

“Lee Coel has never directly apologized to the family, nor has he paid any form of restitution. At no point did anyone from the State Attorney’s office contact Gary or his sons to instruct them concerning their rights and responsibilities as victims,” a family spokesperson said in a statement. “Both sons were close to their mother and suffered severe mental anguish and incurred substantial medical expenses. On Monday, Lee Coel may be released from probation. Odds are he will seek to seal as much of the record as is possible, then later have it expunged. Meanwhile he shifts positions from possessing the power of an officer of the law to the power of an officer of the court.”

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