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'Stand your ground' law becomes issue in Pasco movie killing

Retired Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves Jr. makes his first court appearance via video conference Tuesday. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the vest was for Reeves’ safety. Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper denied bail, citing “significant’’ evidence of guilt.
Published Jan. 17, 2014

Soon after authorities said a retired Tampa police captain shot a fellow moviegoer Monday over a cellphone dispute, a question now common in Florida arose:

Could he be defended under "stand your ground"?

Under state law, if a person fears death or great bodily harm, he can use deadly force, even if retreat is possible. Since it was passed in 2005, the defense has been used in more than 200 cases. In many, the defendant has gone free.

Did 71-year-old retired police Capt. Curtis Reeves Jr. fear that his text messaging foe, Chad Oulson, 43, was going to kill or severely harm Reeves or his wife, Vivian?

Reeves told Pasco County deputies that Oulson stood and struck him in the face with an unknown object when they were arguing inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater during previews before Lone Survivor. Reeves said he was "in fear of being attacked," an arrest affidavit reads.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office realized the stand your ground law could come into play in court. On Tuesday, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said deputies investigated that angle and consulted with prosecutors. They do not believe it is a viable defense here.

He did not elaborate. This is what deputies have released:

Reeves wanted Oulson to stop texting. He walked out of the theater and complained to management. When Reeves returned to the 1:20 p.m. showing, "words were exchanged" and Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, an arrest affidavit states.

Witnesses say the pair did not throw punches. Reeves pulled a gun and shot Oulson, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Several lawyers told the Tampa Bay Times that there are too many unknowns right now to determine whether stand your ground could be used successfully in court. Many factors could be relevant, said Stetson University College of Law professor Charles Rose.

For one, when Oulson threw popcorn, that was legally an assault. But was it reasonable to respond with deadly force simply because of the popcorn? No, Rose believes.

However, it becomes more complicated if Reeves considered it to be one step in an escalating response from Oulson. If he feared that Oulson would next come over the seats and physically attack him — and if Reeves felt he wouldn't be able to handle an attack from a younger man — jurors might consider deadly force reasonable, the lawyer said.

"Here's the problem: We're trying to look into the mind of the defendant and posit what he thought was happening," Rose said. "That's often why these cases go trial — because you just can't tell."

Age, physical stature and each man's strength could come into play, Rose said.

Plant City lawyer Ron Tulin agreed. Tulin built a stand your ground defense for manslaughter suspect Trevor Dooley that was ultimately unsuccessful. Jurors convicted Dooley, who was sentenced to eight years for fatally shooting his Valrico neighbor at a basketball court in 2010.

That case demonstrates the importance of witness statements in cases of self-defense.

Dooley, who was 69 at the time, shot David James, 41, in a dispute about whether a skateboarder was allowed to use the basketball courts.

Tulin argued that James had been choking Dooley and that Dooley feared for his life. But witnesses disputed that version of events. People saw Dooley flash a gun and said that James was trying to wrestle it from Dooley's hands.

Tulin stands by his former client and says he thinks Dooley has a good chance of winning an appeal. On Tuesday, the lawyer posted a warning on Facebook, telling readers that the entire story of the Pasco movie theater shooting likely hasn't been told.

Maybe Reeves was protecting his wife, Tulin speculated. Maybe Oulson was coming at him.

"Don't be quick to condemn," Tulin wrote.

The fact that Reeves is former police officer could have some bearing on court arguments, Rose said.

A defense attorney could argue that Reeves is well versed in stressful standoffs and has expert judgment on when deadly force is necessary.

On the other hand, a prosecutor could argue that as a former officer, Reeves should have known how to de-escalate the situation.

" 'You enticed this guy' is the argument the state is going to make," Rose said.

Demeanor could be important, too, Rose said. How did each man appear to managers and the approximately 25 others in the theater? Were they yelling?

If Reeves calmly approached theater management, asking for help, it would make him appear more reasonable than if he came out in an uproar, Rose said.

Last, character could come into play if the case makes it to trial. Jurors might be inclined to believe the statements of a retired officer, Rose said.

Whatever the evidence shows, Tulin said he thinks anyone who carries a concealed weapon and fires it needs to be prepared to deal with the judicial system.

"They need to be ready to accept the consequences," he said, "and to leave their lives in a judge's hands."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

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