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Judge rejects 'stand your ground' in Curtis Reeves case, pushing case toward trial

Curtis Reeves Jr. takes the stand to testify during his "stand your ground" hearing in Dade City on Feb. 28. The former Tampa Police Department captain shot and killed Chad Oulson in 2014 over the use of Oulson's cellphone during a confrontation inside a Wesley Chapel theater. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Mar. 11, 2017

Circuit Judge Susan Barthle didn't buy the argument that Curtis Reeves killed Chad Oulson in self-defense.

She didn't believe the former Tampa police captain was scared of Oulson, that Oulson threw a cell phone at Reeves or punched him in the face, or that Oulson was "virtually on top of him" in a crowded Wesley Chapel movie theater when Reeves drew a gun.

On Friday, the judge issued an order denying Reeves' request for immunity from prosecution under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

"Because the defendant's testimony was significantly at odds with the physical evidence and other witness testimony, this court has considerable doubts about his credibility," Barthle wrote.

If the judge had ruled in Reeves' favor, criminal charges would have been dismissed and he would have been excused from civil liability. But the decision does not mean Reeves is guilty of a crime. It means the state now may continue its prosecution.

Oulson's widow, Nicole Oulson, was not available Friday for comment, but her attorney, T.J. Grimaldi, said the judge's ruling was a relief for her.

"There were definitely tears of joy there," Grimaldi said. "At the same time, she knows this is just another step in a very long process."

Dino Michaels, a member of Reeves' defense team, said they respect the judge's ruling but intend to file a challenge with the Second District Court of Appeals.

"We have confidence in the court system and the appeals court and we'll go from there," Michaels said.

Judge Barthle's order followed a two-week hearing that ended March 3. Reeves' defense argued that Oulson attacked Reeves — throwing a cell phone and a bag of popcorn at him — after Reeves asked him to turn off his cell phone during movie previews.

Reeves and his wife, Vivian, were visiting the Cobb Grove 16 cinemas Jan. 13, 2014, for a matinee showing of the movie Lone Survivor. They sat in the back row of theater No. 10, directly behind Chad and Nicole Oulson.

Curtis Reeves leaned forward to tell Chad Oulson to turn off a cell phone. Reeves left the theater to complain to a manager. When he returned, he said something that prompted Oulson to stand and confront him.

Accounts differ on exactly what happened next.

Surveillance footage shows Oulson grabbed a bag of popcorn and threw it at Reeves' face. An instant later, Reeves drew a gun from his pocket and fired.

Oulson was shot in the chest. He staggered to the end of the theater aisle before collapsing.

In her Friday ruling, Barthle tore into the defense's arguments, saying the surveillance video along with testimony from a medical examiner and others contradicted Reeves' version of events.

She discounted claims that a cell phone was thrown. An area of white pixels visible in one frame, which the defense said was a phone, was actually the reflection from one of Reeves' sneakers, the judge wrote.

DOCUMENT: Read Judge Barthle's ruling in the Curtis Reeves hearing

In addition, the judge said testimony from a medical examiner, as well as "common sense," casts doubt on Reeves' claim that something hit him near his eye. Why did Reeves claim he had been hit when the video and "basic physics" suggest otherwise, she asked.

"The logical conclusion," she wrote, "is that he was trying to justify his actions after the fact."

In the surveillance video, the closest Oulson ever comes to Reeves is when he grabs the popcorn and throws it, the judge wrote. When Reeves leans forward to fire the gun, Oulson is so far back that he no longer appears in the video frame.

Barthle also didn't accept defense claims that Reeves was scared of Oulson, noting that he initiated contact with him three times and even left his wife alone when he went to complain to the manager. She also dismissed their depiction of Reeves as frail.

"On the contrary, he is quite a large and robust man," the judge wrote. "He also appeared to be quite self-assured when he was testifying and certainly did not appear to be a man who was afraid of anyone."

Prosecutors said the judge's order was simply a step in a long process.

"I don't know if I'd characterize it as a win," said Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia. "I'd characterize it as a hurdle we got over."

If the appeals court affirms the judge's ruling, both sides will prepare for a trial, where a jury would decide whether Reeves fired in self-defense or if he is guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery.

The defense could still cite "stand your ground" before a jury.

The controversial law says a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force if he or she fears death or great bodily harm.

"I can't imagine ... that when this law was written, that the legislative intent was that the law be used for something just like this," Grimaldi said.

In 2012, the Tampa Bay Times examined cases where defendants invoked "stand your ground" and found that nearly 70 percent avoided prosecution.

Locally, the law has been invoked in the defense of Trevor Dooley, a Valrico man who unsuccessfully argued he was defending himself in 2010 when he shot his neighbor, David James. The two men were fighting over skateboarding on a basketball court in their neighborhood.

Last year, prosecutors cited the "stand your ground" law when they declined to charge Jeffrey Glenn in the fatal shooting of Timothy Martin, a former Navy SEAL, at the SoHo Backyard restaurant in Tampa.

Reeves remains free on bond as the case against him continues.

"This is a great outcome we had today," Grimaldi said. "But it doesn't bring Chad back. And it could be overturned on appeal. So while this is a great leap forward, we actually haven't moved anywhere."

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

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