Curtis Reeves will face second-degree murder charges for the shooting death of Chad Oulson at the Cobb Grove 16 Cinemas in Wesley Chapel after Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle ruled March 10 that the controversial “stand your ground” defense did not apply in his case.
Reeves, a 74-year-old retired Tampa Police Captain, and Oulson, who was 43 when he died, had an altercation at the cinemas prior to the showing of the movie “Lone Survivor” on Jan. 13, 2014.
Reeves claimed he feared for his life and that Oulson was aggressive towards him after Reeves asked him to stop texting during the movie previews. Reeves claimed Oulson punched or threw a cell phone at him, and that he had no choice but to shoot.
Oulson was shot in the chest and died at the scene.
Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, invoked the “stand your ground” defense, which says a person does not have to retreat when confronted and can use deadly force if they feel they are in danger of bodily harm or death. If “stand your ground” is permitted by the judge, the accused does not have to stand trial.
But, a two-week-long hearing (Feb. 20-March 3) failed to convince Judge Barthle that it was applicable.
“After careful consideration of all of the evidence provided in this case, this court finds that the defendant did not credibly demonstrate that he reasonably believed it was necessary for him to use deadly force in this situation, therefore, defendant’s motion is DENIED,” Judge Barthle wrote.
Reeves’ defense hinged on his account of being attacked by Oulson and in fear for his life. According to Reeves, Oulson, who was sitting one row in front of him, was coming over the seat to attack him and practically on top of him when he pulled the trigger.
“The defendant testified…that he was grabbing the alleged victim’s chest or body with his left hand while he fired the fatal shot with his right hand, and even stated that he was surprised he did not shoot himself in the hand while doing so: The video evidence and other witness testimony contradicts this assertion also,’’ Judge Barthle’s order stated.
The closest Oulson came to Reeves is when he grabbed Reeves’ bag of popcorn and threw it at him.
“The video then shows the defendant lunge forward with his right arm extended, and fire at the alleged victim, who at that point was so far back from the defendant that he could not even be seen in the video anymore,’’ Judge Barthle concluded. “He certainly was not on top of the defendant, and plainly, the defendant’s left hand was nowhere near the alleged victim’s body.”
Reeves, who is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, was portrayed by the defense as old, frail and fearful for his life, but the judge concluded that he was anything but that fearful victim.
“He is quite a large and robust man,’’ she wrote. “He also appeared quite self-assured when he was testifying, and certainly did not appear to be a man who was afraid of anyone.”
Reeves testified for six hours during the hearing on Feb. 28, claiming that he politely asked Oulson to stop using his cell phone as the previews began.
Oulson swore at him, Reeves said. He said that Oulson’s wife Nicole was talking to him.
“I felt like he would ultimately comply,’’ Reeves testified.
Reeves also said that when Chad Oulson returned to his phone, he told him he was going to the cinema manager to complain. When Reeves returned from talking to the manager, he said he noticed the phone was off, and said he apologized to Oulson for involving cinema management.
That contradicted Nicole Oulson’s testimony of Feb. 23, when she claimed that Reeves was anything but polite in asking her husband to turn off his phone, calling it more of an “order” than a request.
And, she said, when he returned after talking to management, Reeves did not apologize, but rather goaded her husband.
“I see that you put the phone away now that I went to get management,’’ she testified that Reeves said to her husband. “It was not a polite, ‘Oh, thank you for putting it away’…It was to keep nagging at Chad…to keep the argument going.”
According to Reeves, a few seconds later, Chad Oulson stood and confronted him, as Nicole tried to restrain him.
“When I looked up, he was coming over the seat at me, across from where my wife was,” Reeves said. “I saw just a snapshot of something dark in his hand. Almost immediately, I saw what I perceived to be a glow from a light screen right in front of my face, and I was hit in the face.”
Reeves claimed the blow almost knocked the glasses off his face.
At that point, he testified that he began to fear for his life. “I realized I was in a life-or-death struggle,” he said.
Witness Mark Turner, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who was sitting a few seats down from Reeves, said he heard Reeves say something like, “Throw popcorn in my face” almost simultaneously with the shot being fired.
Two other witnesses sitting nearby in the theater, also testified that they heard Reeves make the popcorn comment. Another witness to the shooting, Derek Friedhoff, said the popcorn comment was prefaced by “show you.”
Sumter County Sheriff’s Sgt. Alan Hamilton, who was off duty that day but taking in a movie, delivered what was some of the most damaging testimony to Reeves on Mar. 1.
Sgt. Hamilton testified that he saw the popcorn fly, followed almost immediately by the flash of the gun. He moved to where the shot came from, and said he heard Curtis Reeves’ wife Vivian say, “That was no cause to shoot that man.”
He then claimed Reeves scolded his wife.
“He pointed his finger at her and told her to shut her mouth and to not say another f-ing word,’’ Hamilton recalled.
Hamilton said he identified himself as a deputy and took the pistol Reeves had shot Oulson with away from the suspect.
Hamilton also testified that while he was keeping an eye on the altercation, he did not see Oulson climb over a seat to get at Reeves, as Reeves testified, or throw a cell phone or a punch at him.
“Common sense and the credible testimony of the medical examiner casts grave doubt on the likelihood of anything hitting the defendant in the eye beneath his glasses in the manner the defendant described,’’ the judge wrote. “Which begs the question, why did the defendant say he was hit. in the left eye to the point of being dazed, when the video images and basic physics indicate that he did not get hit in the left eye with anything? The logical conclusion is that he was trying to justify his actions after the fact.”
In audio recordings of Reeves’ being interviewed the day of the shooting, Reeves can be heard saying what he had done was “stupid.”
“If I had it to do over again, it would never have happened,” he said. “We would have moved. But, you don’t get do-overs.”