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Defense, prosecution offer different perspectives in Pasco theater 'stand your ground' hearing

DADE CITY — Curtis Reeves sat in the middle of a darkened theater where patrons were watching previews for shoot-em-ups like Sabotage and Robocop. There was an argument about a cell phone, authorities said, then the former Tampa cop shot and killed another man.

But on Monday, in a Pasco County courtroom, a judge heard a different version of the events. In this one, Reeves was an old man in declining health who acted out of fear when another man attacked him.

The first day of Reeves' long-awaited stand your ground hearing in the 2014 shooting death of Chad Oulson was marked by contradictory images. The prosecutor said the 74-year-old Reeves provoked the confrontation. Reeves' attorneys said Oulson's actions made him think he was in danger of serious assault.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle is hearing evidence to determine whether Reeves should be immune from prosecution under Florida's controversial stand your ground statute. The law says a person has no duty to retreat when faced with a violent confrontation and can use deadly force if he or she fears death or great bodily harm.

If the judge rules he is not immune, Reeves will head toward trial on a second-degree murder charge.

The first two witnesses Monday were Reeves' two adult children. Jennifer Shaw and Matthew Reeves spoke of the loving and devoted Dad they knew growing up and of the physical ailments he endured as he grew older.

Matthew Reeves, who followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Tampa police officer, was present when the elder Reeves shot Oulson, 43, at the Cobb Grove 16 theaters in Wesley Chapel.

With his father watching from a defense table steps away, the son described the scene. The featured movie, Lone Survivor, hadn't yet started when he arrived to meet his parents. Previews were showing as he rounded a corner into an almost pitch-black auditorium, scanning the room to find them. During a lull between previews, he said, he heard his father shout something to the effect of "Get out of my face."

Soon after, he saw a muzzle flash from a single gunshot — and the silhouette of the man his father had just shot.

As the lights came up, Oulson took "an exaggerated step down," then hobbled down the aisle toward where Matthew Reeves stood.

"Once he stepped back, I was able to see my father behind him," Matthew Reeves testified. His father's glasses were off-balance and he was holding the side of his face.

The younger Reeves, with assistance from another movie patron, laid Oulson between the seats, lifted his shirt, and began to try to stem the flow of blood.

When a nurse arrived, he left to wash blood from his hands, then returned to the theater to escort his mother outside. Vivian Reeves was sitting beside her husband when the shooting happened. She and her son were both later interviewed by detectives.

Reeves is arguing that he killed Oulson in self-defense. The two had argued when Reeves told Oulson to turn off his cell phone during the movie previews. Defense attorneys say Oulson responded with an expletive, which prompted Reeves to leave to notify a manager.

When he returned, the argument escalated. Defense attorneys say Oulson threw a cell phone and a bag of popcorn at Reeves before Reeves pulled a pistol and fired.

In an opening statement, Reeves' attorney Dino Michaels emphasized his client's long career with the Tampa Police Department and his extensive training on the use of force. He also noted Reeves' health problems.

Dr. Michael Foley, a forensic radiologist, testified about X-rays and MRI records of Reeves body, which were taken in 2015. The records show Reeves suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis in the bones and joints of his hands, wrists, shoulders, knees and hips. He had undergone a hip replacement. He also had several herniated discs and bone spurs in his spine.

The doctor said the conditions were not uncommon among people Reeves' age.

Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida professor who has conducted extensive research on aging, testified in general terms about the sense of vulnerability people develop as they get older. As their physical health declines, they become more attuned to their own weaknesses — and the incapacity to respond to stressful situations.

"Every old person is aware of their imperfections, their frailties," defense attorney Richard Escobar said afterward.

Reeves' children both testified that as their father grew older, he could no longer participate in many physical activities and exercises he used to enjoy.

Shaw, his daughter, became emotional at times as she described his deteriorating health.

"What I have observed is my parents have trouble functioning on everyday normal activities that you and I take for granted," Shaw said.

The defense has argued that Reeves feared he was about to be seriously injured when Oulson confronted him, which led him to use deadly force.

"This case is about perception," Michaels said. "It's important we understand who Mr. Reeves is."

Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin, in his opening statement, countered that video from the theater shows Reeves leaning forward, entering Oulson's space for "nonconsensual contact" three separate times. It also shows, Martin said, Oulson backing away from Reeves after throwing the popcorn.

"Once the popcorn is tossed, it is over," Martin said. "You can't prevent that by shooting Mr. Oulson."

"His conduct is nothing but retaliation for a former police officer who is used to having people do what he says."

JUDGE WILL DECIDE: Conflicting stories in theater shooting

The court has set aside two weeks for the hearing. Testimony resumes Tuesday morning.

Stay with tampabay.com for live coverage from the courtroom throughout the day.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Defense, prosecution offer different perspectives in Pasco theater 'stand your ground' hearing 02/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2017 9:32pm]
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