Curtis Reeves trial: Defense expert faults investigation, re-creates shooting

Pasco sheriff’s detectives with limited experience may have ignored crime scene basics, including separating witnesses and preserving potential evidence.
The trial is in its third week for Curtis Reeves, 79, accused of second-degree murder in a shooting death during a confrontation eight years ago at a Wesley Chapel Movie Theater.
The trial is in its third week for Curtis Reeves, 79, accused of second-degree murder in a shooting death during a confrontation eight years ago at a Wesley Chapel Movie Theater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 23, 2022|Updated Feb. 24, 2022

DADE CITY — It’s long been fact that retired Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves was the one who shot and killed a man inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater during an argument.

But even after eight years’ worth of litigation and eight days’ worth of witness testimony, exactly what happened in the moments before the gun was fired was still a matter of debate when jurors in his long-awaited murder trial left a Dade City courtroom Wednesday night.

Reeves, now 79, could be convicted of aggravated assault and second-degree murder charges should his panel of high-power defense attorneys fail to convince a six-person jury that it was “reasonable” for him to believe the younger, stronger Chad Oulson posed an “imminent danger to his life and/or safety” when he pulled the gun from his pocket and fired.

One matter defense attorneys, prosecutors and even Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle have all agreed on in this contentious trial is that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office ignored and ultimately lost the opportunity to collect key pieces of evidence from the theater in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Any conditions that impacted what Reeves experienced that day could help decide whether he spends the rest of his life behind bars, his attorneys said.

“The investigation was an absolute train wreck; totally incompetent by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office,” defense attorney Rick Escobar argued Wednesday during a debate with state attorneys and Barthle over how close the findings from his team’s own investigation into the fatal shooting are to what should have been gleaned from the scene on Jan. 13, 2014.

“They didn’t preserve the things they should have preserved,” Escobar said. “They should have done all these things there at the scene and because now they’re not there, we have to try to re-create whatever evidence we can for the jury.”

Escobar and defense attorney Dino Michaels attempted to do that Wednesday with a series of expensive crime scene reproductions and multiple expert opinions on the factors impacting Reeves’ actions that day. His aging body had become frail and he suffered arthritis and a bad back, one expert said. Another spoke on how the use-of-force training Reeves learned with the Tampa Police Department could have painted Oulson as a threat. And an expert’s re-creation of the scene showed how the limited visibility, shadows and unusual backlighting effects created by a lit movie screen could have impacted what he saw when confronted by Oulson.

The result was an intricate analysis of Reeves’ minuteslong interaction with Oulson, a 43-year-old father from Land O’ Lakes who was at the Grove 16 theater, then called the Cobb Grove 16, to see Lone Survivor on an impromptu date with his wife.

Reeves was there with his wife, too — sitting a row behind the Oulsons when he noticed that Chad Oulson was continuing to scroll on his cellphone after the lights dimmed and previews began. Reeves, then 71, leaned forward and asked him to stop, but Oulson didn’t comply. Reeves left to complain to the theater’s manager, then, when he returned to his seat, he told Oulson what he had done. At that point, the altercation began.

The jury has heard from multiple witnesses from all walks of life who were inside the theater when Oulson was shot and killed. Most accounts align on the basics of what happened: Oulson stood up and turned around to say something to Reeves, grabbed the bag of popcorn from Reeves’ lap and then tossed the kernels back in Reeves’ face just before a shot rang out. The bullet nearly severed Nicole Oulson’s finger as it went through her hand and into her husband’s chest. Oulson took a few steps and fell to the ground, while Reeves remained seated — gun in his lap and his hands on his head. In a matter of minutes, those who ran to Chad Oulson’s aid said they could no longer feel his pulse.

The theater’s security cameras captured the shooting on video, and roughly 20 other people were inside Theater 10 when it happened. But the defense team found what they called multiple oversights in the way sheriff’s investigators interviewed witnesses and recorded information at the scene.

“There is no way anybody could ever re-create all of the factors that were at play in the movie theater at the time of the shooting. It’s just impossible,” Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser argued. “That’s why you have to rely on the video that’s in evidence and eyewitness testimony, because that’s the best evidence the jury will ever get.”

The defense team’s efforts did shed new light on an old piece of evidence in this case — an enhanced version of the grainy surveillance footage.

The enhanced surveillance footage showed a small white flash near Curtis Reeves’ feet just as the shot rang out. That flash could be from the reflective strips on the black, slip-on sneakers Reeves wore to the theater that day — which were even brought to court to show the jury. Cameras at the theater’s entrance and customer service desk also show little flashes around Reeves feet as he walked around.

But the flash could also be Chad Oulson’s iPhone, the defense argued. It appears near Reeves’ feet seconds before the popcorn flies, lending credence to his account of shooting because he was hit in the face, they claimed.

There are still more experts on the defense team’s witness list. On Wednesday, Judge Barthle said she’s hoping the jury will begin deliberating Friday.

Barthle has set aside the month of February to hear testimony in the case. Then, it will be up to a six-member jury to decide Reeves’ fate. The trial resumes tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.

Staff writer Anastasia Dawson, is reporting live from the trial at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Her tweets appear below.

If you are unable to see the tweets on your device, click here to read them.

And catch up here on the trial so far, in reverse order: Tuesday, Monday, Friday, Thursday, Feb. 16, Feb. 15 and Feb. 14. Read the full background on the case here.