Thursday, April 11

Curtis Reeves found not guilty of second-degree murder, aggravated battery

After nine days of testimony nearly nine hours of closing arguments Friday in the trial of Curtis Reeves, the jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder and not guilty of aggravated battery. The decision came one day after Reeves testified in his own defense.  

Reeves was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery, however, Judge Susan Barthle told the jury they could find him guilty of a range of lesser charges including manslaughter, justifiable homicide, or excusable homicide.

FOX 13’s Aaron Mesmer says there was a gasp as the verdict was read and Chad Oulson’s widow was visibly shaking. He says Reeves did not react and he seemed calm from the moment he walked into the courtroom. 

Eight years ago, during a matinee showing of the movie “Lone Survivor” at Cobb Theater in Wesley Chapel, a 71-year-old Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, confronted the 43-year-old Chad Oulson sitting in a seat in front of him.

According to the original arrest documents from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the eldest of the men, Reeves, was displeased at the younger man, Oulson, for using his cell phone during the previews.

The documents say the men exchanged heated words. Oulson reportedly threw popcorn – and possibly something else — at Reeves’s face. Fearing for his own safety, the documents say, Reeves pulled out a handgun and shot Oulson in the chest.

Reeves was arrested at the scene and interviewed by investigators. 

He told them about the altercation but said Oulson hit him in the face with an “unknown object,” prompting him to pull his 380 semi-automatic handgun from his pocket and fire one round.

Arrest documents say Reeves “was in fear of being attacked.”

The case against Curtis Reeves

In the months after the shooting, evidence was slow to be made public. Grainy surveillance video seemed to corroborate the basics of Reeves’ telling of the incident.

FROM 2014: New video shows different angle of theater shooting

In the video, Reeves can be seen walking out of the movie theater. His pocket appeared to contain an item that could be a gun. Court documents later revealed Reeves walked out of the theater to alert a manager about the man in front of him, using the cell phone. 

The video also shows the shooting, after which Oulson takes a few steps before collapsing on the theater floor.

Photos of the scene were released a few months later, showing the gun, a bullet casing, and bloody clothes on the floor with popcorn strewn around the theater seats.

PREVIOUS: Photos show movie theater shooting scene

As evidence trickled into public view, Reeves fought in court to remain free while he awaited trial. 

Judge Pat Siracusa refused to grant Reeves bond several times; at 71 years old, Reeves could have faced significant time in jail, but an appeals court granted him a $150,000 bond in July 2014. 

MORE HERE: Theater shooting suspect Curtis Reeves freed on $150,000 bond

Reeves was placed under house arrest and given a GPS ankle monitor as part of the terms of his bond. He was also ordered to have no contact with Chad Oulson’s widow, Nicole Oulson. 

At the time, both prosecutors and defense attorneys believed the trial was only about a year away. 

Disorder in the court

Less than a year after the shooting, the weight and public scrutiny on the case began to show on those involved.

Circuit Court Judge Pat Siracusa drew criticism after a July 2015 speech he gave from the bench, saying the trial system is not perfect.

“Perfect is tough. You’re not gonna get perfect. We’re gonna get as close as we can, but I’m not going to wait forever,” Siracusa said, directing his comments at attorneys.

FROM 2015: Judge: “A right to a trial is not a right to a perfect trial”

Siracusa was responding to requests from both sides to delay the trial to January 2016, scolding them for postponements.

The judge ended by saying, “I’m going to be unreasonable from this point forward. I might as well put that on the record: ‘From this point forward, I’m going to be unreasonable.'”

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The following week, Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, got an unexpected call from the judge, announcing he had recused himself from the case.

MORE: Judge steps down from Curtis Reeves case after comments

Escobar said, despite Siracusa’s assertion that a perfect trial was not attainable, it was still his goal.

“We are doing everything within our power that Mr. Reeves gets a perfect trial. When we fail to do this, we get reversals,” Escobar said.

Stand Your Ground

Two years before Curtis Reeves pulled out his gun and fatally wounded Chad Oulson, a South Florida teenager was shot and killed by a 28-year-old who said he feared for his own life.

The death of Trayvon Martin put Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law on an international stage. The law allows someone to meet force with force if they feel their life is in imminent danger.

In 2015, defense attorneys for Curtis Reeves decided they, too, would test the boundaries of the controversial law.

In a motion of more than 50 pages, filed in October 2015, the defense said popcorn was flying when Reeves was hit in the face by a cell phone that had a heavy protective case.

MORE HERE: Attorneys for theater shooter file Stand Your Ground motion

Attorney and legal analyst Anthony Rickman, who is not involved in the case, reviewed the motion and explained what the defense’s arguments were.

Speaking from Reeves’ point of view, Rickman said, “I had to use force that was necessary to save myself and protect myself and I used that force by shooting Oulson.” 

The Stand Your Ground motion laid out what they say was behind all of Reeves’ actions, from his reason for carrying a gun to his reason for fearing for his life. 

According to the documents, former and current law enforcement officers are allowed to carry, even when they’re off-duty. An off-duty Sumter County deputy was in the theater that day and disarmed Reeves after the shooting. He was carrying a gun, too. 

PREVIOUS: Deputy who witnessed theater shooting takes stand

The motion also lists testimony from the lead detective on the case, who admits he carries a weapon when he’s off-duty. 

The documents also say Oulson’s phone, which had an OtterBox brand protective case, could have weighed as much as a cue ball, roughly 6 ounces. Because of that, the defense said it should be considered a “deadly weapon.”

READ: ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense focuses on phone

Three years after the shooting, the defense got to make its case for Reeves standing his ground in the theater that day. 

Reeves testified during the hearing, saying Oulson “scared the hell out of me.”  

“I’m leaning all the way back in my seat, as far away as I can to get away from him and suddenly, he’s on top of me,” Reeves recalled. “He hit me with his fist or with something. I think he had his cell phone in his hand because I saw the blur of the screen.”

FROM 2017: Defendant’s son recalls movie theater shooting as hearing opens

Paired with Reeves’ testimony, surveillance video shown in court paints a dramatic picture of the altercation. Oulson could be seen standing over Reeves, grabbing his popcorn and throwing it, before Reeves fired a shot, sending Oulson staggering back.

Attorney Anthony Rickman said, from the point of view of the defense, Reeves’ case seemed strong.

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“What was Reeves supposed to do? Wait? Sit back and wait to get that fatal blow at 71 years old?” Rickman wondered on the defense’s behalf, adding that Reeves may have felt he had a split-second to decide what to do.

Nicole Oulson

Chad Oulson did not come to the movie alone that day. His wife, Nicole, sat next to him and watched the whole thing unfold, at times, trying to deescalate the situation

The bullet that killed her husband went through her hand, first, as she pulled her husband by his chest, away from Reeves.

After the defense filed its motion for a Stand Your Ground hearing, Nicole Oulson’s attorney called it “a joke” but also “shocking.”

“As blunt as I can be, [I] think it’s an absolute joke that this law or immunity defense could apply to these sets of facts,” attorney T.J. Grimaldi told FOX 13 in Nov. 2015.

PREVIOUS: Attorney for theater shooting victim’s family responds to motion

As the case of her late husband’s shooter moved through the courts, Nicole Oulson fought battles of her own. 

She filed a lawsuit against Cobb Theaters and one of its employees for not enforcing its “no weapons” policy. The lawsuit also placed blame on the employee, to whom Reeves complained, for not stepping in to prevent an altercation.

FROM 2016: Widow sues movie theater over shooting

Her case against the theater could cause problems for the prosecution. In it, Nicole conceded that her husband was the aggressor and theater workers should have intervened.

MORE: Suit against theater could help shooter’s case

Nicole’s first public testimony came during the Stand Your Ground hearing in Feb. 2017.  She told the court her “whole world just got shattered into a million pieces” when her husband died.  

But it was her retelling of events that began to cast doubt on Reeves’ case.

She said Reeves was “rude” when he leaned forward to tell Chad to put down his phone.

“It felt demanding and like an order,” she told the defense attorney. “His whole demeanor, whole presence, the whole tone, everything about it did not sound friendly.”

READ: Victim’s wife: Theater-shooter Reeves was ‘very rude’

Nicole agreed that her husband was also being “matter of fact” during the exchange, adding that her husband said, “What’s your problem? The movie hasn’t even started yet.” 

Nicole said Reeves then left the theater and, when he came back, said “[Something] to the effect of, ‘You’ve put your phone away now, I see.'” 

Nicole said that’s when things escalated. 

“I remember feeling this should have been over,” she said.

Vivian Reeves

Curtis Reeves’ wife was also in the theater that day. During the Stand Your Ground hearing, Vivian Reeves agreed that the moment her husband came back from telling a theater employee about the man using a cell phone was the moment things turned violent. 

Vivian described Chad as becoming angry.

“’You told on me. Who the [expletive] do you think you are?’” Vivian quoted Chad during the hearing. 

She also said she “was trying to be invisible” during the altercation, and attempted to stay out of it. During that time, she said she turned away and didn’t see the shooting.

“Believe me; I am very sorry that I didn’t see what happened,” Vivian offered.

 MORE: Theater-shooter’s wife: ‘I was trying to be invisible’

Before that, however, she said she saw Chad stand and lean over the seat toward her husband. She said it seemed like Chad was going to hit Curtis.

The court also heard some of Vivian’s interview with investigators after the shooting. She told investigators her husband never shot anyone during his 20 years in law enforcement and that, for the situation to end the way it had, he must really have felt threatened.

“This case is about perception”

The judge presiding over Reeves’ Stand Your Ground hearings got a first-person view of where the defendant sat when he shot Chad Oulson once in the chest.

Judge Susan Barthle was photographed sitting in seat nine of the last row of the theater’s lower section, taking in the view of the theater.  

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MORE: Judge gets view from theater gunman’s chair

Theater staff dimmed the lights and played the same previews that aired on Jan. 13, 2014. Defense attorney Dino Michaels explained it was important for the judge to see what Reeves may have seen that day.

“This case is about perception,” he said.

Off-duty Sumter County Sgt. Alan Hamilton saw a different view of what happened. Seated in the same row as Reeves, Hamilton testified that his wife saw the commotion first and told him to look.

The deputy testified that he saw a “burst” of popcorn and a muzzle flash, and then heard a gunshot. 

The deputy also said he heard Reeves make a statement.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe what I just [expletive] done,’” Hamilton testified.

Neither Reeves nor his wife have corroborated the statement.

Others who were in the theater were called to testify during the hearings, with varying degrees of recollection of the events. 

One said they could hear Reeves mumbling. Another said Reeves seemed agitated. Most said they saw popcorn flying through the air before hearing the gunshot.

MORE: Witnesses testify in Stand Your Ground hearing

After two weeks of testimony and seeing the theater for herself, Judge Barthle rejected Reeves’ Stand Your Ground motion.

Reeves’ attorneys appealed the decision, but in May 2018, the final attempt at Stand Your Ground immunity was denied, sending the case to trial. 

Judge Barthle set the date: Feb. 2019.

New rules

It wasn’t long before Reeves’ attorneys began filing new motions for their client to have a new Stand Your Ground hearing.

After Reeves’ original motion for Stand Your Ground immunity was denied, lawmakers in Tallahassee changed the legal language, shifting the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution.

Before, Reeves’ attorneys had to prove he was in fear for his life when he shot and killed Chad Oulson – a burden of proof the judge said they did not meet. Now, the prosecution would have to prove Reeves was not in fear for his life, but shot Oulson anyway, in order for a murder trial to proceed.

Reeves’ attorneys successfully petitioned the judge to delay the trial while higher courts ruled on the legality of the new rules for Stand Your Ground cases. At the end of 2019, the Florida Supreme Court decided that changes made to Stand Your Ground laws would not apply retroactively to cases that were already decided, again clearing the way for Reeves’ trial to move forward.

PREVIOUS: Florida court’s ruling on Stand Your Ground clears Reeves case to move forward

More legal delays – and a pandemic

In a few short months after the state Supreme Court’s ruling, the world was turned upside down by COVID-19.

In Feb. 2020, a trial date was set for October of that year. In July, the date was pushed back to April 2021. When April arrived, the court decided to postpone the case for another full year, setting the new date for Feb. 2022.

Meanwhile, Curtis Reeves remained on house arrest. In 2019, his attorneys unsuccessfully petitioned the court to allow their client to remove his ankle monitor.

After the pandemic hit, courtrooms went quiet, with only the most pressing matters being heard by judges via video conference. With a full year to finish preparations for trial, the defense went quiet, reemerging for the week-long process of jury selection.

On Friday, the jury made up of four men and two women, who range in age from late 30s to early 60s found Reeves not guilty. 

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