DADE CITY — After four days of testimony from moviegoers, case investigators and the county medical examiner, state prosecutors rested their case against retired Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves on Thursday, making way for the defense to present its case.
As early as 8:30 a.m. Friday, the witness stand will be in the hands of attorneys Richard Escobar and Dino Michaels, a defense team that has delivered an onslaught of cross-examination questions designed to catch every witness off-guard.
And after more than eight years of litigation, they have plenty of court records to parse in search of even minor inconsistencies. Most of the witnesses called by the assistant state attorneys to recount their recollection of the day Reeves, then 71, fatally shot 43-year-old Chad Oulson in a Wesley Chapel movie theater have had their words scrutinized against the account they provided to Pasco County sheriff’s deputies in the moments after the Jan. 13, 2014, shooting, and then audited against depositions conducted in 2015.
Reeves now faces charges of aggravated battery and second-degree murder for Oulson’s death. From the moment Reeves first spoke to law enforcement that day, in a recorded interview played for the court, he claims he acted in self-defense. His body had begun to fail him as he aged, Reeves said, and he was terrified the young man in front of him would “beat my a--.” Reeves still claims he felt something — possibly Oulson’s iPhone — strike his face, injuring his left eye and knocking his glasses askew. In that moment, Reeves reached into his front right pocket and pulled out his .380 caliber handgun, firing a single bullet through Nicole Oulson’s finger and into her husband’s chest, ultimately killing him.
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But witness after witness told the same story. The only object anyone saw thrown at Reeves was his own bag of popcorn, flipped up into his face by the exasperated Land O’ Lakes father.
The witnesses that filtered through court this week have told their stories many times before. Extensive testimonies were collected for Reeves’ 2017 attempt to claim immunity from prosecution under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. He argued that Oulson was unreasonably irate when, as the previews played inside Theater 10 of the Grove 16 cinema, Reeves bent down and asked the man to stop “playing around” on his cellphone.
The same judge presiding over his criminal case, Judge Susan Barthle, denied Reeves claims of self-defense and sent his case to a criminal jury trial.
Thursday morning began with a brutal dressing down of Allen Proctor, the now-retired Pasco County sheriff’s detective who was in charge of the Major Crimes Unit’s investigation into Reeves’ case. Defense attorneys led Proctor to admit he was unfamiliar with state self-defense laws when he was assigned the case, which was only the second he had ever spearheaded.
The defense slammed Proctor for speaking with witnesses about what happened before he recorded their official recollections of what they saw during the shooting and questioned a number of perceived missteps in his investigation at the scene that night — among them, failing to collect footage captured by the theater’s security cameras before management dismantled the system and sent it to the company’s headquarters in Alabama.
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Once Proctor was let off the witness stand, though, another moviegoer — retired Air Force veteran Mark Turner — offered a straight-laced, emphatic account of what happened in the moments Reeves killed Oulson.
Turner and his wife were sitting at the very end of the back row where Reeves and his wife were saving a seat for their son Matthew, now a Tampa police officer.
He only observed the end of the “interaction” between Oulson and Reeves, Turner said, but paid more attention when he saw Oulson turn around, grab a bag of popcorn from Reeves’ lap, and then “flipped it back in his face … a flip-of-the-wrist motion.”
Reeves turned his head amid the cloud of popcorn and fired his weapon nearly as soon as he grabbed it from his pocket, Turner said. He also remembers the words Reeves muttered aloud as he shot: “Throw popcorn in my face.”
Turner’s testimony was followed by another moviegoer, a registered nurse who attempted to save Oulson’s life — performing CPR and chest compressions alongside Reeves’ own son, Matthew.
Derek Friedhoff was in his early 20s when he and his then-girlfriend bought tickets to see Lone Survivor at the Grove 16. Friedhoff, the youngest witness called to the stand thus far, didn’t see a punch or a cellphone thrown Reeves’ way, he told the court. And he didn’t remember the words or faces of those who tried to help in the aftermath. He wasn’t trying to remember those details, he said.
“In that moment, it was more important to attempt to save Chad Oulson’s life,” he said.
Now that the defense will begin working through its list of witnesses, Reeves himself could take the stand. His wife, Vivian, who sat beside him during the shooting and has sat behind him throughout the trial, could also be called to testify, along with their son and daughter.
On Wednesday, testimony also included the playing of the detective’s recorded interview with Reeves after the shooting. You can read the full story, and listen to the interview, here.
Testimony Tuesday came from other fellow movie-goers who re-counted what they saw that day. You can catch up on that testimony here.
And Testimony Monday came from Nicole Oulson. Read about that here.
Full background on the case can be found here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly which attorneys led Allen Proctor to admit he was unfamiliar with state self-defense laws when he was assigned the Curtis Reeves case.