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Six years after movie theater shooting, trial set for Curtis Reeves

The retired Tampa police captain is charged with second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of Chad Oulson inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater.

DADE CITY — Six years after the infamous shooting inside a Pasco County movie theater, the second-degree murder case against Curtis Reeves Jr. has been set for trial.

Reeves, 77, who shot Chad Oulson after an argument escalated inside the Cobb Grove 16 movie theaters over Oulson’s use of a cell phone during the previews, is scheduled to stand trial Oct. 5, 2020. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed it would likely take three weeks.

At a Wednesday morning hearing inside a Dade City courthouse, Reeves’ attorney Richard Escobar sought to have the trial date set for January 2021.

“Sir, I think you might want to reconsider that," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Lewis. “This court is not inclined to go into 2021. Really and truly it’s not.”

Defendant Curtis Reeves Jr., left listens to his attorney Richard Escobar, right, in a court hearing Wednesday, February 5, 2020, at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves faces a second-degree murder charge in the 2014 shooting of Chad Oulson in a Wesley Chapel movie theater. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

A recent Florida Supreme Court ruling paved the way for Wednesday’s hearing after years of stagnation on the case.

Reeves sought protection from prosecution under the state’s stand your ground law. After a two-week hearing in 2017, a judge ruled Reeves was not eligible for immunity, meaning the case could proceed to trial.

But shortly thereafter, the Florida Legislature changed the stand your ground law, switching the burden of proof in the proceeding from the defense to the prosecution. Reeves’ attorneys argued that change warranted a redo of the hearing. The case ground to a halt as the judge awaited guidance from the Florida Supreme Court about whether a new hearing would be required.

Related: RELATED: Florida lawmakers changed ‘stand your ground’ law. Chaos followed.

That clarity came in December, when the high court ruled cases that already conducted hearings need not hold do-overs, jump-starting a case that has lingered on the Sixth Judicial Circuit docket for more than half a decade and clearing the path toward trial.

Before the judge and lawyers settled on the October trial date, Escobar fought to keep the case off the trial calendar. He suggested they reconvene in six weeks, after Escobar had a chance to talk with witnesses to figure out when they might be available. There are more than 127 witnesses listed, he said.

He also rattled off a list of other trials he has scheduled between now and the end of the year.

“I think this case should take precedent,” said Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin, who had asked the trial be set for the spring. “We’re all busy.”

He added that witness issues are common, and that “we’re all experienced lawyers, we know how to deal with it.”

“As much as this court can, give this case the priority that it deserves," Martin said.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Lewis said she would not set the trial date for 2021. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The judge agreed to set the trial date so Escobar would block off the time. No sense waiting six weeks when his calendar could be even fuller, she said.

“This is a priority case in this circuit and I understand that it needs to be tried," she said. "And it will be.”

Nicole Oulson, widow of Chad Oulson, sat in the gallery during Wednesday's hearing. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

After the hearing, TJ Grimaldi, the attorney for Oulson’s widow, Nicole Oulson, said it was clear Escobar was trying to delay. Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, was 71 when the shooting took place. He will be 78 if the trial starts as scheduled later this year.

“I think it’s almost reprehensible that this thing is still going on six years later," Grimaldi said. "'I think it’s an absolute joke to continue to say that they need more time to do things.”

A status hearing in the Reeves case is set for March.