ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A Florida judge on Friday denied a “stand your ground” defence for a retired Florida police officer who fatally shot a man in a movie theatre over texting, which means the 74-year-old could stand trial on second-degree murder charges.
Judge Susan Barthle ruled that Curtis Reeves is not immune from prosecution in the death of 43-year-old Chad Oulson. The shooting happened in a movie theatre in a suburb north of Tampa in January 2014 after the two men got into an argument because Oulson was texting his daughter’s day care during the movie previews.
The two men and their wives were seated near each other during a showing of the movie Lone Survivor.
Reeves is free on bond.
Florida has been a leader in giving citizens immunity in cases of self-defence, with its stand-your-ground law serving as an emotional point of debate after several high-profile shooting deaths. That includes the death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
During a two-week hearing to determine whether Reeves would have to stand trial, Reeves testified he shot Oulson after he was either punched or hit in the face with a cellphone.
“I realized I was in a life-or-death struggle. He was no longer a loudmouth; he was a definite threat,” Reeves said in court. “He was reaching for me. … He was getting ready to punch me. I perceived that. That’s when the pistol came out.”
The judge said a videotape of the events captured that afternoon by a movie theatre surveillance camera didn’t support Reeves’ testimony that he felt physically threatened. The video did show Oulson throwing popcorn at Reeves. An instant later, Reeves pulled a gun from his pocket and fired. Oulson was shot in the chest.
“The physical evidence contradicts the defendant’s version of events,” the judge wrote in her ruling. She found that while Reeves testified he was hit in the outside corner of his left eye with a cellphone or a fist, “common sense and the credible testimony of the medical examiner” casts doubt that he was hit in the eye beneath his glasses.
“The logical conclusion is that he was trying to justify his actions after the fact,” she said.
Reeves also is charged with aggravated battery because the shot hit Oulson’s wife in the finger.
Dino Michaels, a Tampa lawyer who is a member of the defence team, said Friday that Reeves will appeal Judge Barthle’s ruling.
“We respect the decision of the court,” Michaels said. “I don’t think it’s proper to comment on the court’s order at this point, and we’re taking the next step available for our client.”
The attorney for Nicole Oulson, T.J. Grimaldi, told The Associated Press on Friday that he and his client are “thrilled” with the judge’s ruling.
Grimaldi said they’re prepared for a long delay; if the appeals court agrees with the lower court, Grimaldi said a trial probably wouldn’t happen until next year.
“But this is without a doubt good news,” Grimaldi said. “In my opinion, this was the defence’s only shot. I really feel this was a bastardization of the ‘stand your ground’ law. You cannot convince me that the legislature’s intent was to pass a law that when someone throws popcorn on someone else, that person can shoot them.”
Richard Escobar, the attorney for Reeves, did not immediately return a call for comment.