Two weeks of testimony did not convince a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge that Curtis Reeves should be immune from prosecution for shooting and killing a man in a movie theater. Judge Susan Barthle made the right decision in allowing the case, which invokes Florida's badly flawed "stand your ground" law, to proceed toward trial. Reeves should have to face a jury of his peers, and Floridians should pay close attention to changes being considered to the state's infamous self-defense law.
The shooting occurred in January 2014, before the start of a weekday matinee inside the Cobb Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel. Reeves sat down with his wife, Vivian, in the back row. In front of them, Chad Oulson and his wife, Nicole, settled in. Reeves became agitated because Chad Oulson was using his cellphone during the previews. The retired Tampa police captain asked Oulson to put his phone away and the confrontation escalated. Witnesses who were inside the theater described an argument that grew louder on both sides. It ended when Oulson grabbed Reeves' popcorn bag and threw it at him, and Reeves pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired once, striking Oulson, 43, in the chest. Reeves, 71 at the time, was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery. As unnecessary as it seems to shoot a person over a cellphone argument at the movies, the case immediately raised the possibility that Reeves would claim self-defense under "stand your ground."
The 2005 law says people have no duty to retreat and can use deadly force if they "reasonably believe" they are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Reeves testified that he feared Oulson — who was younger and stronger — was about to pummel him; that Oulson was coming over the seat; that as an older man with numerous health problems, he felt he had no escape but to shoot. Barthle, though, concluded that Reeves' version of events contradicted the physical evidence (which included a grainy theater surveillance video), other witness accounts and common sense. She noted that Reeves left to complain to management about Oulson's phone use, apparently unconcerned about leaving his wife alone in the theater. Because Oulson was out of the frame of the video when the gun fired, the judge rejected Reeves' claim that Oulson was lunging toward him at the moment of the shooting. "The logical conclusion," Barthle wrote, "is that he was trying to justify his actions after the fact."
"Stand your ground" is a bad law that has allowed criminals and violent offenders to evade punishment — even when they initiated a fight with an unarmed victim. Yet the Senate could vote on a bill as early as next week that would make the situation worse by shifting the burden of proof in immunity hearings from the defendant to prosecutors, who would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt why a person shouldn't be immune. In essence, SB 128, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, would require the state to try cases twice. Legal experts predict that if it passes, defense attorneys across Florida will demand immunity hearings in every case where self-defense could possibly apply.
The judge's ruling Friday does not mean Curtis Reeves is guilty of murder. Even though he failed to prove that he should be immune from prosecution, he can still claim self-defense at trial and a jury can decide. Just because Reeves did not win "stand your ground'' protection is no reason to turn a bad law on its head and make it even worse.