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Trial postponed in Pasco theater shooting due to stand your ground uncertainty

Curtis Reeves, who is charged with second-degree murder in the 2014 movie theater shooting of Chad Oulson, has used a "stand your ground" defense during court proceedings in Pasco County. [Times files (2017)]
Curtis Reeves, who is charged with second-degree murder in the 2014 movie theater shooting of Chad Oulson, has used a "stand your ground" defense during court proceedings in Pasco County. [Times files (2017)]
Published Aug. 24, 2018

DADE CITY — Curtis Reeves won't go to trial anytime soon.

A judge, after hearing arguments Friday from prosecutors and defense attorneys, decided to postpone the retired Tampa police captain's February murder trial due to uncertainty about whether he should get a new stand your ground hearing.

Reeves, 75, is accused in a fatal 2014 shooting inside a Pasco County movie theater, which was the subject of a two-week hearing in the spring of 2017. His defense unsuccessfully argued that he should be immune from prosecution under the controversial self-defense law.

But a recent change to the law shifted the burden of proof in such cases from the defense to prosecutors. Courts across the state have issued conflicting opinions about whether the new law can apply to pending cases, meaning the Florida Supreme Court will have to decide.

"This case just isn't ripe for trial," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle said. She delayed the case until after the high court rules.

Barthle said she was concerned about the possibility of moving ahead, only to be told later that another stand your ground hearing should have been held. She also wanted to avoid unnecessarily spending time and taxpayer money on another hearing.

"I think I'd rather have multiple root canals than go through another stand your ground hearing of that length," the judge said.

Reeves' attorney, Richard Escobar, welcomed the decision. He noted that a new hearing would cost the defense $100,000, a wasted sum if it turns out the law is not retroactive.

"Justice doesn't have a time limit," he said. "This is not about how quickly we can get somebody through the system. But more importantly, it's about how can we get someone through the system correctly?"

Reeves is charged with second-degree murder in the Jan. 13, 2014, shooting of Chad Oulson in the Cobb Grove 16 theaters. The men argued after Reeves told Oulson to stop using his cell phone. Oulson approached Reeves, grabbed a bag of popcorn and threw it at him. An instant later, Reeves drew a handgun and shot Oulson in the chest.

The defense team asked for the case to be dismissed based on the stand your ground law, which says a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force if in fear of great bodily harm.

In 2017, it was their burden to prove that Reeves feared Oulson was about to start beating him when he decided to shoot.

The judge ultimately didn't buy it, clearing the way for a trial.

Weeks after the judge denied Reeves immunity from prosecution, the state Legislature passed an amended version of stand your ground, which put the burden on prosecutors to prove that a defendant was not in fear when he or she used deadly force.

Appeals courts across the state have issued more than a half-dozen decisions on the law's retroactivity. A Supreme Court decision isn't likely for months.

Oulson's widow, Nicole, sat quietly in court Friday beside her attorney, T.J. Grimaldi.

"I think she probably saw a sliver of hope when the case was set for trial," he said afterward. "It's very difficult to accept."

He accused the defense of trying to drag the case out.

"I believe it is very clear that the defense is doing everything possible for him to never see his day in court," Grimaldi said.

Escobar said that Reeves remains on house arrest, when he could be enjoying retirement.

"He's not happy," he said. "These are the golden years of his life."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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