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Task of finding fair jury begins in theater shooting trial of Curtis Reeves

A pool of 50 potential panelists lined up outside the Pasco County courthouse by 7:30 a.m. The first potential panelist told a judge she considers the shooting murder.
Curtis Reeves, a former Tampa Police captain, spots friends and family in the back row Monday morning at the start of jury selection in his trial on charges including second-degree murder.
Curtis Reeves, a former Tampa Police captain, spots friends and family in the back row Monday morning at the start of jury selection in his trial on charges including second-degree murder. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 7

All you need to know about the Pasco theater shooting

DADE CITY — Eight years have passed since Curtis Reeves pulled out a handgun and shot a man dead at a Wesley Chapel movie theater. As he walked into a courtroom Monday to stand trial in the slaying, the 79-year-old retired police captain held a cane in one hand and his wife’s hand in the other.

Reeves smiled when he looked up and saw the back row filled with friends and relatives.

He faces charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and second-degree murder and a sentence of up to life in prison if he’s convicted. Even a lesser sentence, at his age, could mean spending the rest of his life behind bars.

A pool of 50 potential jurors were queued up outside the Pasco County East Courthouse in Dade City by 7:30 a.m. One was a former assistant public defender. Another came dressed in the county’s neon orange “Solid Waste” jumpsuit.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle presides over the first day of jury selection in the murder trial of Curtis Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle presides over the first day of jury selection in the murder trial of Curtis Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Early on, it became clear it would be difficult to find a juror who hadn’t heard about the shooting. Most jurors raised a hand when asked if they knew about the case. That means Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle must question each prospect, one by one, to determine if they can be unbiased.

Just before 5 p.m. Monday, after juror No. 28 answered questions about her background knowledge on the case, it became clear the court would need to call another 50 potential jurors in tomorrow.

Reeves’ shoulders drooped as Barthle questioned the first potential juror, who said she remembered hearing about the case in the news and on Facebook. She only skimmed through articles, she said, but it was enough for her to form an opinion.

”I just feel like he shot a guy and if you kill someone that’s murder,” juror No. 3 told the court. “He’s already guilty.”

It was enough for the judge to let her go. Others questioned during the morning seemed dubious about Reeves’ claim of self-defense, but that changed in the afternoon as some said they can remain unbiased.

All jurors are identified by number only.

Juror No. 27, an engineer, likened media coverage of Reeves to the 1995 murder case against former NFL star and actor O.J. Simpson. Others remembered their children’s school going on lockdown the day of the shooting or driving past the mayhem outside the theater on the way home from work that night.

Barthle said jury selection is expected to take three days, which means opening statements in the case could come as soon as Thursday.

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Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson, 43, and injured his wife, Nicole Oulson, during a confrontation Jan. 13, 2014, at the Cobb Grove 16 Theater.

The Oulsons were sitting in front of Reeves and his wife when Reeves leaned forward during the movie previews and asked Oulson to stop texting. Reeves left the theater, returned, and their argument escalated. Oulson stood and threw a bag of popcorn in Reeves’ face. Reeves drew a handgun and fired a single shot, hitting Nicole Oulson in the hand before killing her husband. Nearly 100 people witnessed the shooting, court records show.

Reeves’ attorneys argue that he acted in self-defense, initially mounting a “stand your ground” defense that Barthle rejected in 2017 after a 10-day hearing. Now, it will be up to a panel of six jurors to decide Reeves’ fate in a trial expected to last at least three weeks. Four alternates will also be selected.

At the heart of the case are questions about whether Reeves fired his gun out of fear or anger and whether harsh words and thrown popcorn can be considered a display of deadly force. Reeves has spent much of the past 8 years under house arrest following his release from jail on $150,000 bond in July 2014.

Questions to the potential jurors focused on whether they had seen video surveillance of the shooting from inside the Grove theater. The defense said it shows Oulson throwing an object at Reeves, then grabbing the older man’s popcorn and hurling it in his face.

Many replied that they have stopped following news altogether since the COVID-19 pandemic. As the day drew to a close, Barthle reminded the nine remaining potential jurors that they are forbidden from watching or reading news coverage of the case until they are dismissed from the panel.

Quipped one, “That shouldn’t be hard.”

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