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Lawyer for Curtis Reeves to invoke 'stand your ground' law

Curtis Reeves is charged with murder in a 2014 movie theater shooting.
Curtis Reeves is charged with murder in a 2014 movie theater shooting.
Published Oct. 29, 2015

The lawyer for Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa police captain accused of shooting and killing a man in a Wesley Chapel movie theater last year, said Wednesday that he plans to use Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law to have the criminal charges against Reeves dismissed.

The decision to pursue this legal strategy has been widely anticipated ever since Reeves was charged with second-degree murder and claimed that he had acted in self-defense.

In 2005, with strong support from the National Rifle Association, Florida's Legislature became the first to pass a "stand your ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force when they fear death or great bodily harm. If, after a hearing, a judge determines that the incident meets the criteria in the law, the shooter is "immune from criminal prosecution and civil action."

In 2012, when the Tampa Bay Times examined the "stand your ground" law, reporters found that a majority of those who invoked the law to avoid prosecution had been successful. Nearly 70 percent had gone free.

"I think we have a pretty solid stand your ground case," said Reeves' attorney, Richard Escobar, adding that he plans to file a formal motion within the next few weeks. A five-day hearing has already been scheduled for Jan. 25.

Reeves, 73, was arrested in January 2014 and accused of shooting Chad Oulson, 43, a man he had criticized for sending text messages in a movie theater. Oulson was shot once in the chest and died. His wife, Nicole, who was sitting next to him during the matinee, was grazed by a bullet, prompting an additional charge of aggravated battery.

From the outset, Escobar has argued that video taken from inside the movie theater will show that Oulson attacked Reeves first and that his client genuinely feared for his life. Under the law, a defendant must be able to show that he had a "reasonable belief" in a threat before using deadly force, not that the threat actually existed.

Escobar's list of potential witnesses includes a retired FBI agent who specializes in use-of-force cases and a retired Jacksonville Sheriff's Office detective and crime scene investigator who wrote a book about the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot in Sanford.

The trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of Martin's murder in 2013, renewed national criticism of Florida's "stand your ground" law, which erased the duty to retreat from violent confrontations.

Although the trial brought new scrutiny to Florida's pro-gun politics — and added to its "Gunshine State" notoriety — in the past few decades, roughly half of the states have passed "stand your ground" laws or statutes similar to it. An additional nine have established through case law that there is no duty to retreat.

Critics of the laws argue that they have made it more difficult to prosecute criminals and have emboldened those with guns.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.