DADE CITY (FOX 13) - Three years after shooting a man to death in a Pasco County movie theater, retired Tampa Police Captain Curtis Reeves returned to court Monday for a “Stand Your Ground” hearing, which will ultimately determine whether he stands trial.
Reeves is charged with second-degree murder for shooting Chad Oulson to death at the Cobb Grove 16 movie theater in Wesley Chapel in January 2014.
As the hearing began Monday morning, his attorneys argued that Reeves was justified in shooting Oulson because he was in fear for his life. They said surveillance video shows Oulson throwing his cell phone at Reeves, lunging at him, and snatching a bucket of popcorn from Reeves’ lap, then throwing it back in his face. That’s when Reeves opened fire, killing Oulson.
Minutes earlier, the two men had been arguing over Oulson’s use of an iPhone during the movie previews.
Defense attorney Dino Michaels portrayed Reeves, then 71, as an elderly man with arthritis and other medical conditions unable to defend himself and his wife from the aggression of the much younger Oulson, 43.
"Chad Oulson is looming over him, is coming over the seat. He's acting irrationally, he's acting menacingly, he's acting angrily,” said Michaels.
Michaels also pointed to Reeves’ police training and experience, which he says told Reeves he was in danger. “Mr. Reeves is both an old person and a retired law enforcement officer.”
With Oulson coming towards him, Michaels said, “Mr. Reeves knows what he has to do. He acted reasonably because of his background, because of his training, and because of his situation."
Prosecutor Glenn Martin, on the other hand, offered a very different scenario. “His conduct is nothing but retaliation for the very embarrassing act of having popcorn thrown” at him, said Martin.
Martin portrayed Reeves as shooting Oulsen with callous indifference, saying, “Prior to the shot being fired, Mr. Reeves says, ‘throw popcorn on me will you?’ Bang!”
Martin disputes a key claim by the defense, that Oulson also threw his cellphone at Reeves. Martin categorically denied the assertion, telling the court “there was no cell phone thrown. There’s nothing to indicate that a cell phone was thrown and hit him in the face."
However, FOX 13 analysis of the surveillance video shows something other than popcorn thrown in Reeves’ direction. The object is about the size of a cell phone, and Oulson’s phone was found on the floor near Reeves seat.
Immediately after the shooting, Reeves told Pasco detectives that Oulson hit him with either his fist or his cell phone. He told detectives he shot Oulson because he “scared the hell out of me. He kept hollering. He led me to believe he was going to kick my ass."
The first two witnesses at Monday’s hearing were Reeves’ daughter and son. Jennifer Shaw, Reeves’ daughter, gave emotional testimony about her father’s deteriorating health. After numerous interruptions by the state, which objected to much of her testimony on the basis she could not provide specific dates, Shaw said, “I can't put a time frame and say that on this this date he couldn’t tie his shoe, but I’ve seen that. And I can’t put a time frame and say that on this day his fingers locked up and he couldn’t hold a cereal spoon, but I’ve witnessed that. I can’t tell you the date he tried to pick up Madison (her daughter) and he had to put her back down because he couldn’t stand up and hold her. I don’t know those dates, but those are the things that I’ve witnessed and I see on a daily basis.”
Shaw’s testimony is intended to build on the defense argument that Reeves stood no chance against Oulson. Her brother, Tampa police officer Matthew Reeves, then took the stand to describe what he saw. He had just arrived and was in the back of the theater looking for his parents when he said he heard his father say “Get off of me, or get out of my face.” He then heard the gunshot and saw Oulson stagger back. As Oulson began to slump out of his seat, Matthew Reeves tried to help save him, by performing CPR.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows a defendant to claim immunity from prosecution if the defendant can prove he reasonably believes force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The hearing that began Monday is the start of a likely two-week “mini-trial” in which both sides will present witnesses, testimony, and evidence. Reeves himself may even testify.
There is no jury, and when the hearing concludes, the judge alone will determine whether Reeves was justified.
Under Florida law, if the judge rules in favor of Reeves, the charges are dropped and he’s free to go. If the judge rules against Reeves, then the case will go to a jury for a full trial, which would likely happen sometime in 2018 – four years after the shooting.