The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the 2017 law switching the burden of proof from the defense to the state in stand your ground cases is not retroactive.
The ruling means stand your ground cases across the state that stalled while awaiting clarity from the justices can now move forward. That includes the infamous 2014 Pasco County movie theater shooting, where authorities say retired Tampa police captain Curtis Reeves fatally shot Chad Oulson after he threw popcorn at the former cop in a movie theater.
Reeves was charged with second-degree murder and sought stand your ground protection in 2017 under the old rules before the law changed, but was denied. The case was then put on hold, waiting for the day when the state’s highest court decided the retroactivity issue.
Now 76, Reeves can finally stand trial.
“About time somebody had some good common sense,” said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, whose office is prosecuting Reeves. "I felt that was the appropriate result all along.”
The prosecutor added: “So maybe we can get Reeves off the dime."
Central to the Supreme Court’s ruling was whether the 2017 change to the stand your ground law — originally passed in 2005 to remove the duty to retreat and provide for lawful use of force when facing the threat of serious injury or death — applied to cases that were already underway.
Before 2017, defendants who raised a stand your ground defense had the burden of proving they were entitled to immunity at a special hearing held before trial. The Legislature switched that burden to prosecutors, who now must prove a defendant is not entitled to immunity.
Since then, courts across Florida offered contradicting opinions on whether that rule change was meant to apply to pending cases. Thursday’s decision ends that confusion.
This issue is the reason why the Reeves case has been in limbo for more than a year. A circuit judge conducted the two-week 2017 hearing, when the defense had the burden of proving that Reeves was entitled to immunity under stand your ground. The judge rejected his immunity pleas. That should have paved the way for a murder trial.
Weeks later, the Legislature made the switch, throwing the future of the case in limbo. The judge in Reeves’ case decided she would wait for clarity from the Supreme Court before deciding to hold another immunity hearing or set a trial date.
The court’s ruling Thursday, which did not directly address Reeves’ case, makes clear that in such cases where the immunity hearing was held before the rule change, that judges’ decisions remain intact. The new rules will be applied to cases that have not yet conducted a stand your ground hearing, or conducted it after the 2017 rule change took effect.
Justices said this applies irrespective of when an alleged crime was committed. Therefore, only cases that held immunity hearings using the old rules but after the rule change went into effect are subject to new hearings.
When Chad Oulson’s widow, Nicole, read about Thursday’s ruling online, she took a screenshot and texted her attorney, T.J. Grimaldi, the Tampa lawyer said.
"Is this real?” she asked him.
“Once I told her that it was real," Grimaldi said, “and once I told her that it meant that this case can now move forward without having another stand your ground hearing, elation is an understatement of how she felt.”
Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, did not return requests for comment.
Nicole Oulson has waited nearly six years for Reeves to stand trial over what happened Jan. 13, 2014 at the Cobb Grove 16 movie theater off Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel.
The confrontation started over Chad Oulson using his cell phone during the previews of a matinee showing of Lone Survivor. Reeves pulled the trigger after Oulson, who sat one row in front of Reeves, stood up and grabbed the elder man’s popcorn, authorities said.
Both men were with their wives. The single bullet grazed Nicole Oulson’s hand before entering her husband’s chest, fatally wounding the 43-year-old father of one.
Prosecutors have said that delays generally help the defense, as witnesses move or die and memories fade. Meanwhile Reeves has been free since 2014. He posted $150,000 bail, though must wear an ankle monitor and is restricted to his home, church, doctor’s offices and the grocery store.
All parties must appear in court to set a new trial date. No date for that hearing has been set yet.