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Officer won't face charges in shooting

More than a year after the incident that touched off two nights of racial disturbances in St. Petersburg, federal investigatorshave found no evidence that police Officer James Knight violated TyRon Lewis' civil rights by shooting him.

"Based on the evidence we had, we did not have sufficient evidence to seek the return of an indictment," U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson said Monday.

Wilson's announcement ends the possibility that Knight, 35, will face criminal charges.

But the St. Petersburg Police Department now faces a civil suit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court by Lewis' mother and sister, the family's attorney said.

The suit does not seek a specified amount of damages, said Stuart lawyer Michael Lewis, who is not related to the family he represents. The suit, mailed from Stuart last week, accuses the department of causing a wrongful death and violating Lewis' civil rights, he said.

TyRon Lewis' sister, speaking at a hastily organized news conference just two blocks from the intersection where her brother died, said she was not surprised by the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute Knight.

Still, Deanne Lewis said, "we're going to fight until we get justice." She said she wants both Knight and his partner that day, Officer Sandra Minor, imprisoned, "and reparations for my family."

On Oct. 24, 1996, at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S, Knight and Minor pulled up behind a 1980 Pontiac driven by Lewis, 18. He refused to get out or roll down his window. His passenger, Eugene Young, then 17, also refused.

The confrontation lasted 55 seconds. It ended when Knight fired three shots through the Pontiac's windshield, breaking Lewis' right arm and piercing his heart.

After the shooting, police learned Lewis had three outstanding warrants and was carrying crack in his pocket. He also was driving without a license.

Knight said he had to shoot Lewis because the Pontiac hit him, throwing him onto the hood and putting him in fear for his life. Of more than 30 witnesses, only two said they saw Knight on the hood, and their stories did not match.

Anger over the shooting prompted people to throw rocks and bottles at police and touched off the burning and looting of homes and businesses. On Nov. 13, a Pinellas grand jury ruled that the shooting was justified. A second disturbance erupted.

Police officials suspended Knight without pay for 60 days for standing in front of the car with his gun drawn to intimidate Lewis, violating his training. Supporters donated enough money to replace his pay. Knight is appealing that suspension.

"While I was and am confident of both the moral and legal propriety of my actions," Knight said in a news conference last year, "I regretted then and continue to regret that such extreme action was necessary to protect my life."

He could not be reached for comment Monday. Police spokesman Bill Doniel said Knight's attorney, Joseph Ciarciaglino, will address reporters today.

The Justice Department launched its investigation of the shooting the day after it occurred. FBI agents and attorneys from the Tampa U.S. attorney's office and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division interviewed 62 witnesses.

Ultimately, their testimony led federal investigators to conclude that they did not have evidence of willful intent by Knight to use excessive force.

To indict Knight, a federal grand jury would have had to find the officer "actually knew he was using excessive force at the time of the shooting," according to a press release from Wilson's office. "Unlike the standards in some state criminal statutes, negligence or recklessness are not sufficient for conviction under this federal law."

Wilson declined to elaborate. But he said federal investigators made no findings _ such as whether Knight's actions were negligent or reckless _ beyond determining there was insufficient evidence of a civil rights violation.

The press release also said the investigation concerned only the shooting and "did not include allegations of a pattern and/or practice of police misconduct against groups or persons, and its conclusion should not be construed as an endorsement of past police practices in south St. Petersburg."

Wilson praised the work of St. Petersburg's new police chief, Goliath Davis III, in changing the department.

Less impressed was National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement founder Omali Yeshitela, who criticized the Justice Department's decision. He suggested Davis has done little to change the department beyond requiring his officers to wear long pants and abolishing profanity.

"TyRon Lewis did not die as a consequence of somebody wearing short pants and cussing at him," Yeshitela told reporters. "Somebody shot him down."

He vowed to see Knight and Minor fired and prosecuted. When someone asked how his group would achieve that goal, he said they were gathering petition signatures.

As for the chief, Davis said he would make sure practices and policies are in place to prevent a similar incident and the violence that followed.

"But by the same token" he said, "we're asking that the community conduct itself in such a way that it does not spark anything."

_ Staff writers Leanora Minai and Adam C. Smith contributed to this story.