DADE CITY — Eight years after he fired a pistol inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater, Curtis Reeves was found not guilty of murder in the death of Chad Oulson.
A panel of four men and two women took about 3½ hours Friday night to acquit the retired Tampa police captain, apparently heeding defense arguments that Reeves killed Oulson in self-defense.
The late-night verdict punctuated one of the Tampa Bay area’s longest-running and most closely-watched criminal cases — one that persisted through a 2017 stand your ground self-defense hearing, appeals, court delays and, finally, a three-week trial.
In the courtroom gallery, Oulson’s widow, Nicole, wept openly as the verdict was read out. She sat in her seat trembling, then immediately sped out of the courtroom with her mother and friends following behind.
Reeves’ wife, Vivian, cried tears of relief.
As the jury entered the courtroom and handed the court clerk their verdicts, Vivian Reeves grabbed a small pouch from her purse and filled her hands with tissues, seemingly preparing for the worst.
Reeves, 79, simply smiled and embraced family members and his attorneys as the jury’s decision was announced. Minutes later, he spoke briefly with reporters on the front steps of Robert Sumner Judicial Center.
“This is great,” Reeves said, smiling. “It’s been a long eight years. I couldn’t wait for it to be over with.”
He thanked his defense team, led by Tampa attorney Richard Escobar — who fought for Reeves for nearly a decade. At the same time, Reeves expressed regret for the shooting that occurred so long ago.
“It was a sad day for everybody on both sides,” Reeves said. “It never should have happened. I never wanted it to happen.”
As he climbed into his car, a free man, Escobar clasped his shoulder. Reeves’ daughter is getting married on Saturday, and now he can walk her down the aisle.
The jury spent 10 days listening to witnesses pick apart the minuteslong interaction that ended the life of Oulson, a 43-year-old father who was on a date with his wife Nicole.
They watched the same few seconds of grainy surveillance camera footage more than two dozen times during this trial — sometimes in slow motion, sometimes enhanced or lightened and sharpened in an effort to make out any usable view of the altercation that’s partially seen in the far corner of the frame.
And at 5:33 p.m. Friday, after a full day of closing arguments, objections and sidebars in Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Barthle’s courtroom, the six people picked to form the jury in Curtis Reeves’ murder trial finally were asked to decide whether the then-71-year-old acted in self-defense the day he fatally shot Chad Oulson.
The long-awaited murder trial of the retired Tampa police captain ended Thursday with testimony from the man himself, now 79. As jurors listened, they occasionally turned their gaze to Reeves’ wife, his two adult children and others who have come to the courtroom day after day to show their support.
Jurors also had been able to see Nicole Oulson, the widow of the man Reeves shot dead during an argument over Chad Oulson scrolling on his cellphone when the previews started to play at the Grove 16 Theater, then called the Cobb theater, during a matinee showing of Lone Survivor on Jan. 13, 2014.
The jury’s verdict punctuated the unusually long-running case, which a state attorney called an “embarrassment to the criminal justice system.” The Reeves case lingered in court for years, partly due to the hotly contested self-defense claim and tangled appeals centering on changes to Florida’s stand your ground law.
Attorneys for Reeves argued that he was a scared old man, afraid that the much younger and stronger Oulson was about to pummel him, when he drew his handgun and fired.
“I truly thought this was the end of the line for me,” Reeves testified in the trial. “I thought at the very least I would be seriously injured, if not killed.”
Oulson, 43, and his wife, Nicole, sat a row ahead of them. As movie previews rolled, Reeves noticed Oulson looking at his cellphone. He told him to put the phone away. Oulson ignored him and kept scrolling.
Reeves got up, went to the lobby and complained to a manager. Returning to the theater, he saw that Oulson had put away his phone. He made a comment that if Oulson had done so sooner, he wouldn’t have had to tell the manager.
At that, Oulson rose and confronted Reeves. He grabbed the bag of popcorn and tossed it at him. Reeves immediately reached into his pocket, drew a .380 caliber pistol and fired.
Nicole Oulson had raised her hand to try to get her husband to sit down. The bullet hit her finger before penetrating his chest.
Chad Oulson staggered down the aisle and collapsed. An off-duty Sumter County sheriff’s deputy disarmed Reeves.
Handcuffed in the back of a patrol car hours later, Reeves said he thought Oulson hit him with something before the popcorn flew.
“I didn’t want to shoot anybody,” Reeves testified in trial. “I came to the theater with my family to enjoy a movie, not to be attacked by some guy that’s out of control.”
In the trial, and in a two-week stand your ground hearing that preceded it five years earlier, Reeves’ account stood in contrast to what other people in the theater remembered.
Nicole Oulson recalled that Reeves was demanding and rude.
“There was no ‘excuse me,’ or ‘Do you mind?’” she testified. “It was just very matter of fact that ‘you need to do this.’”
Other witnesses claimed they heard Reeves mutter something about popcorn being thrown in his face moments before they heard the gunshot.
“‘Man killed over popcorn toss’ — that sounds like a sensationalized headline, something you’d read in big, bold type at a newsstand,” prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser said in closing arguments Friday. “But in this case it’s absolutely, unfortunately true.”
Rosenwasser argued that no other witnesses recalled a version of events similar to what Reeves claimed. He pointed to a security video inside the theater, which showed Reeves drawing the weapon within a second of the popcorn flying. He argued that Reeves, a career police officer who knew how to de-escalate volatile situations, instead chose to make this one worse.
Defense attorney Escobar took his time during a more than three-hour closing argument, urging the jury to put themselves in Reeves’ position, to try to understand what occurred from the perspective of a then-71-year-old man.
“The law of self-defense doesn’t tell you ‘Get smacked first, get punched first, then see what you can do,’ because, as state witnesses have told you, just one punch can cause great bodily harm and one punch can cause death,” he said. “The law of self-defense requires us to judge the reasonableness of Reeves’ perception — not here in the comfort of a courtroom, but in a darkened, cramped theater.”
Staff writer Anastasia Dawson is reporting live from the trial at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Her tweets appear below.