Fred Grimm

Theater killer, calling popcorn attack ‘life and death struggle,’ invokes Stand Your Ground

Nicole Oulson, center, listens to the taped interview of former Tampa Police captain Curtis Reeves, Jr., during his bond reduction hearing before Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City on Feb. 7, 2014.
Nicole Oulson, center, listens to the taped interview of former Tampa Police captain Curtis Reeves, Jr., during his bond reduction hearing before Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City on Feb. 7, 2014. AP

“If I had it to do all over again, it would never have happened,” Curtis Reeves told a police detective back in 2014. “I would have moved.”

Reeves didn’t move. He stood his ground, as gun advocates say in Florida. In Theater 10 of a Pasco County multiplex, the retired Tampa cop pulled a .380 semiautomatic pistol out of his pants pocket and shot a fellow moviegoer in the next row.

Chad Oulson, 43, with a gunshot wound in his chest, toppled across the laps of two other startled movie patrons in the adjacent seats. Charles Cumming testified Thursday that Oulson’s dying words were, “I can’t believe he shot me.”

The same bullet struck Oulson’s wife, Nicole, in the hand.

Reeves and Oulson had been bickering over Oulson’s use of his cellphone during the previews — something so mundane that the shooting became the stuff of international news.

Witnesses saw Oulson tossing popcorn at Reeves. But this is Florida, where the definition of self-defense has been stretched to cover even the most absurd “threat.” In a Dade City courtroom, Reeve’s lawyers are building a case that the movie house killing was permissible under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute. Maybe popcorn was threat enough.

The Stand Your Ground hearing (live-streamed by WTSP Channel 10 in Tampa) entered its final days this week. Reeves and his lawyers are trying to convince Circuit Court Judge Susan Barthle that Reeves acted out of utter fear. And that she should dismiss the second-degree murder charges.

On Tuesday, Reeves offered testimony that seemed tailored to fit Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground statute. Oulson, he said, “was out of control. He was in a fit of rage. He was trying to get over the seat at me. I realized he was getting ready to attack. I knew I had to defend myself.

“I realized I was in a life-or-death struggle,” Reeves said. “He was no longer a loudmouth. He was now a very definite threat.

“I would have to take decisive action if I wanted to survive this thing,” he insisted.

Under the statute, it doesn’t matter if Oulson had been an actual, real-life threat. Reeves only needs to convince Barthle that in his mind, Oulson was about to do him grievous bodily harm.

His careful testimony included a few elements that he had neglected to tell detectives in his initial statement, taped in the detective’s cruiser in 2014, when he regretted not moving away from the confrontation. On Tuesday, he added that Oulson had thrown his cellphone at Reeves, hitting him in the head.

Still, despite the permissive Florida law, which was dreamed up by gun-rights advocates, Reeves might have a hard time convincing the judge to toss the murder charge. Other moviegoers, including Sumter County Sheriff’s Sgt. Alan Hamilton, didn’t see Oulson climbing over his seat toward Reeves. They didn’t see Oulson throw a cellphone or strike Reeves. Just after the shooting, Hamilton heard Reeves’ own wife, Vivian, say, “That was no cause to shoot that man.” And Hamilton saw Reeves point his finger at his wife and warn her to “shut her mouth” and “not say another f------ word.”

Before 2005, when the state’s self-defense law required Floridians to attempt to retreat before responding to a threat with deadly violence, it would be up to a jury to decide whether this kind of killing was self-defense. But the Reeves shooting was another of the violent absurdities defense lawyers have tried to recast as Stand Your Ground cases.

Just last week, Miami-Dade prosecutors were forced to drop charges against two teenage gangbangers charged after a gun battle that disrupted the Jan. 16 Martin Luther King Day parade. The problem, of course, was that under the Stand Your Ground statute, they were just a couple of mutual combatants, as my colleague David Ovalle reported. No matter that the firefight had left five teens and children and three adults with bullet wounds and set off a panicked stampede of parade watchers.

The law has spawned scores of similar absurdities across Florida, preempting prosecution of gun thugs and armed cranks outraged that neighborhood kids had wandered onto their property. And giving the likes of Curtis Reeves a decent chance of escaping a second-degree murder charge.

Not that the Florida Legislature doesn’t intend to tinker with Stand Your Ground. Companion bills now circulating through the House and Senate would shift the burden of proof in the preemption hearings in these cases from the defense to the prosecution. Which would make it even more difficult to prosecute trigger-happy shooters. Both bills, with help from the all-powerful NRA, are likely to win approval.

Back in 2014, in the interview police recorded with Reeves just after the shooting, before he had refined his narrative to fit Stand Your Ground, he lamented: “My life is ruined.”

But maybe not. In Florida, the law takes special care of gunslingers.