The eight years that have passed since Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson in a Pasco County movie theater can also be measured this way:
One pandemic, three judges, 10 days for a stand-your-ground hearing, a number of prosecutors, countless hearings and more than 100 witness depositions. The rest has been five foiled trial dates and delays that have frustrated Oulson’s family and baffled observers.
But after all of that, it appears a trial might just happen this time.
It’s set to start Feb. 7 and is expected to last three weeks. Last week, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Lewis heard a flurry of outstanding motions in a move typical during the final steps before trial. The lawyers involved seem more confident than they’ve been before.
“It appears that finally all of the parties … are all on the same page to make the trial finally go forward,” said T.J. Grimaldi, the attorney representing Oulson’s widow, Nicole Oulson, who is a witness in the case.
“We are pushing to make that our trial date,” said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, adding that the case has become “an embarrassment to the criminal justice system.”
“Oh, yeah. We’re going to go to trial on that day,” said Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, whom Bartlett and Grimaldi have accused of intentionally delaying the case. Escobar said he and his trial partners have already paid for a rental home in the Lake Jovita area near Dade City, where the case will be tried.
Reeves, a 79-year-old retired Tampa police captain, is facing a charge of second-degree murder in the shooting Jan. 13, 2014, at the Cobb Grove 16 theaters in Wesley Chapel. Reeves asked Oulson to stop texting during the previews at a showing of Lone Survivor. The two argued.
Reeves told deputies he thought Oulson, 43, had hit him in the face with something. He feared the younger man would attack him so he pulled his gun and shot him in the chest. Nicole Oulson told detectives Reeves was belligerent and rude and that her husband was calm the whole time.
Why the case has taken so long to come to trial depends on whom you ask. Grimaldi and Bartlett said they feel Escobar is delaying the case to keep Reeves free on bail for as long as possible.
“My client is unable to spend time with her husband and my client’s child is unable to spend time with her father,” Grimaldi said. “All the while this man is at home able to spend time with his wife and his loved ones.”
Escobar has repeatedly pointed to the case’s complexity and many witnesses. He has a 12-by-12 room packed with 6-inch binders to illustrate the point. He also pointed out that he has filed only one motion to postpone a trial date and that it was unopposed by the state.
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“People make way too much of the time to try a case,” Escobar said. “My focus is on getting it right, because obviously if Mr. Reeves goes to prison, it’s going to be a death sentence for him. He’s up there in age.”
It’s not unusual for a murder case to take years to wind its way to trial. Higher stakes call for more thorough preparation. That means in-person depositions and layers of expert witnesses on both sides, then getting everyone’s schedules to line up, said Clearwater defense attorney Jay Hebert.
“But clearly I would say, 2014 is a long time to wait,” Hebert said.
Another factor that can play into a lengthy case: It’s less likely for a murder case to end in a plea deal, Hebert said. There are fewer options that would be acceptable to both sides, particularly for a defendant as old as Reeves. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of up to life in prison, but even an offer for 20 or 30 years is a life sentence for someone close to 80.
Then there’s Florida’s stand-your-ground self-defense law, which a defendant can invoke before the case even goes to trial. A judge ruled against Reeves’ request for immunity under the controversial law. He appealed. Then lawmakers changed the law, shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors. That raised the question of whether Reeves would get another chance, eliciting a “Lord, have mercy” from the judge at the time. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that cases where hearings already had been held needn’t redo them.
Throw a pandemic into the mix, and the complexity multiplies, Pinellas defense attorney Roger Futerman said. The coronavirus halted jury trials for months and forced other proceedings onto Zoom. The legal system has begun moving again but is processing a backlog.
Looming now is the fast-spreading omicron variant, which has already stalled at least one court system. Miami-Dade has paused criminal jury trials until Dec. 31. As of Tuesday, no Tampa Bay area courts had taken such a step.
Whether any part of the eight-year stretch was intentional on Escobar’s part, Futerman didn’t know, he said. But the delays benefit Reeves, he said.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt your case when he’s an elderly defendant, and he’s out of custody,” he said. If he is convicted, “he has gotten to stay out for a long time and enjoy some freedom.”