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Carlton: Under our law, could movie theater shooter go free?

Here in Florida a few years back, we watched in horror as burly guards on video beat a teenager in a juvenile boot camp. We saw him collapse and learned he had died.

Recently, we made worldwide news after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman scuffled with Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager walking home from a convenience store. The teenager was, as the world knows by now, shot dead.

Both times, a lot of us thought we knew what would happen. We knew what jurors would see and what they would ultimately say. These cases were outrageous. Common sense would win the day.

But then comes nuance, and actual fact, and the hard edges of the law. And maybe what you thought isn't how things turn out.

The latest Florida story to get major outrage concerns Curtis Reeves Jr., a 71-year-old retired Tampa cop. He was armed with a gun even for a Monday afternoon movie with his wife, and annoyed by a fellow patron texting during the previews. Chad Oulson, 43, was shot. Reeves is charged with second-degree murder.

We know how this turns out, right?

Reeves' Tampa attorney Rick Escobar is a man of perpetual motion and a hyper-thoroughness that can drive the prosecution nuts. Already, hints of a defense have emerged.

Escobar has spoken of a dark "object," also mentioned in the police report, coming at Reeves' face in that final moment. Presumably, this was not the bag of popcorn the report says Oulson threw at Reeves — popcorn being an absurd but headline-making "weapon" compared to the .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol in Reeves' pocket.

Will it be argued that that "object" was Oulson's cellphone, mistaken for something scarier in a darkened theater?

By now we know Reeves is well versed in guns and how to defuse tense moments, since he started a SWAT team at the Tampa Police Department.

Will the defense say that experience is exactly what made him act, given the tragic shootings of police officers who died in a split second before they could react?

And then there's our "stand your ground" law.

If Reeves reasonably believed he needed to use deadly force to protect himself or someone else from being killed or badly hurt, he was justified under the law and had no obligation to back off. And what matters is what was in his head at that moment, not what we might think of it after.

Expect to hear much about his age and physical condition. Expect to hear that, contrary to what might have flashed across TV screens, he did not stand up and gun a man down for texting — he went out to get a manager and when he came back, things escalated. This is not excuse but nuance.

And it was legal for him to have that gun — even if you find the need to arm yourself to go to a movie very difficult to fathom.

Forgive this grim post-game quarterbacking, but it's something we do when a tragedy makes us wonder about how we got here. Like stories before it, this case will unfold as it unfolds. Witness accounts from inside the theater will be critical.

Still, it's hard to grasp that an argument over courtesy on a Monday afternoon in a movie theater could come to this — hard to believe anything could justify this man's death. But nuance, facts and the state of our law just might.

Carlton: Under our law, could movie theater shooter go free? 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 8:07pm]

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