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Why is the Wesley Chapel movie theater shooting case taking so long to go to trial?

Retired Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves (center, white shirt) stands with his wife, family and friends while his attorneys talk to the media after he was freed from the Pasco County jail in July 2014. Reeves faces a charge of second-degree murder for fatally shooting Chad Oulson 43, in a Wesley Chapel movie theater that year. Reeves has claimed he acted in self-defense, however the case continues to drag on and a "stand your ground" hearing won't take place until February 2017 - more than three years since that fatal encounter. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 6, 2016

DADE CITY — On Jan. 13, 2014, Curtis Reeves Jr. is accused of shooting and killing a man in a Wesley Chapel theater.

Last year, Reeves' attorneys said he will claim he acted in self-defense when he shot Chad Oulson, 43, under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

This week, after more than two dozen court appearances, the judge set a date to hear that argument: Feb. 20, 2017.

If the hearing takes place as scheduled, it will have been more than three years — or 1,134 days — since Reeves pulled the trigger. It could take longer still to hold the trial itself, perhaps not until late 2017 or even 2018.

That raises the question: Why has this particular court case taken so long? And is that prolonged period justified?

The answer depends on who you ask.

"(This case) should have gone a long time ago," Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said. "Factually, it's just not that complicated. It happened in a movie theater, in a matter of minutes, and it's over and done with."

Typically, Bartlett said, he expects the "stand your ground" phase of a case like Reeves' to be decided within 18 months — two years at the most.

Defense attorney Richard Escobar said the case is taking as long as it needs to take. It's a complex case, he said, with 170 witnesses and lots of moving parts.

"It's a very, very tedious case because of the number of witnesses, the amount of evidence we have to go through," he said. "It's just the nature of the beast."

TJ Grimaldi, who is representing the victim's widow, Nicole Oulson, in a lawsuit agrees that it is a complicated case. But he also thinks the many delays benefit the accused, who is now 73.

"By delaying the case, Mr. Reeves continues to be able to spend time with his family," Grimaldi said. "Meanwhile, Nicole Oulson continues to be a single mother with no husband."

• • •

How long is too long for a homicide case to reach trial?

The defense attorney objected to the premise of that question.

"You're speculating that there's something unusual about a homicide case taking this long," Escobar said.

He pointed to other complicated and lengthy homicide cases in the Tampa Bay area, comparing the Reeves case to defendants such as Edward Covington, Julie Schenecker and Adam Matos.

But Reeves is charged with second-degree murder, and those cases were all first-degree murder cases. None of them involve "stand your ground" issues. Instead, there were multiple victims in each case:

Covington was sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend and her two children in 2008. Schenecker is serving a life sentence for executing her two children in 2011. Matos awaits trial on charges that he killed four people and kidnapped his child in 2014.

There were also competency issues in the Covington and Schenecker cases that have not been raised in the Reeves case.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office said Reeves shot Chad Oulson after the two got into an argument during previews at the Cobb Grove 16 theaters in Wesley Chapel. Reeves asked Oulson to stop texting. The two argued, and Reeves shot Oulson in the chest.

Reeves said he was defending himself, but also faces a charge of aggravated battery because a bullet he fired nicked Nicole Oulson.

Another factor differentiates those three cases from the Reeves' case: those defendants were all represented by public defenders.

"It's not unusual for a complex murder case to get delayed," Bartlett said, "particularly if a public defender is representing them."

That's because public defenders typically have larger case loads than private defense attorneys such as Escobar.

"You would think a private attorney would give some priority to their bigger cases," Bartlett said.

Escobar's response:

"We would all love to try these cases in a shorter amount of time," the defense attorney said, "but you have to realize we're all working other cases as well. This is not the only case on our plate."

• • •

Glenn Martin, the prosecutor on the Reeves' case, actually agreed with Escobar that things are moving as fast as they can.

The state's witness list includes 120 to 130 names of those 170 witnesses, Martin said, anyone who might have information relevant to the case. Though most will not appear in court to testify, Escobar chose to depose all of them.

That's not something the defense attorney had to do, Martin said, but something he has "an absolute right to do."

"It's Mr. Escobar doing what he feels is the best for his client," Martin said.

Another issue slowing the case down, Martin said, is that so far none of the defense's expert witnesses have prepared written reports. So prosecutors have had to spend hours deposing those witnesses to find out what they've discovered and what the defense might use at trial.

In fact, the prosecutor said there's so much evidence that he and Escobar are stuck in a bit of a closed loop. When Martin tasks the state's experts with investigating the findings of the defense's experts, Escobar then conducts new depositions of the state's experts.

Another thing that's contributed to the delay is that Martin took over the case when former Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery retired last summer. Martin estimated that transition — getting acquainted with the evidence and readjusting strategy — added an extra six months alone.

"From the public's eyes," Martin said, "I can see why they'd be scratching their heads asking why this hasn't been done."

• • •

However, Bartlett said there may be another reason why the case is taking so long: The defense wants to keep Reeves free as long as it can.

After spending six months in the Pasco County jail, Revees posted $150,000 bail and was freed in July 2014.

The retired Tampa police captain remains confined to his Hernando County home. He is only allowed to leave for church, the doctor's office or the grocery store. He must wear an ankle monitor.

However, that also means Reeves can enjoy the comforts of home with his family, instead of awaiting trial in jail, as many defendants do.

"He's not in custody, so they don't really have an incentive to get this going," Bartlett said. "Frankly, the defense is kind of dragging it out."

Bartlett suggested that perhaps the defense is attempting to allow Reeves, 73, to spend his last years a free man. If convicted, Reeves faces a life sentence. But at his age, even pleading guilty to a lesser charge could mean that he will die behind bars.

"When (my colleagues) ask 'Why is this taking so long?' " Bartlett said, "that seems to get popped out."

Escobar called that "lunacy."

"That is an absolutely ludicrous statement," Escobar said. "You can tell Bruce Bartlett that Richard Escobar says that is comical. Mr. Reeves is by no means near his death bed."

Plus, Escobar said, while his client may be free on bail, his travel and activities are still limited.

"He'd like to enjoy much more liberty," Escobar said. "No one in this case is trying to drag their feet.

"We are looking forward to our day in court. Because we believe that when we go to trial, Mr. Reeves will be acquitted of all charges."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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