USA Justice First Look

Why Florida judge rejected the ‘stand your ground’ defense in movie shooting

The case is the latest to involve Florida's 'stand your ground' law, which entered the national radar in 2013 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In this Feb. 5, 2014 file photo, Curtis Reeves is seen at a court bond hearing in Dade City, Fla.
Andy Jones/AP file via the Tampa Bay Tribune
|
Caption

A retired Tampa Bay police captain will face second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges after a judge rejected his petition to dismiss the case based on Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Curtis Reeves Jr., the former officer, was involved in a 2014 dispute with Chad Oulson at a suburban Tampa theater, over Mr. Oulson’s use of a cell phone during previews of the movie "Lone Survivor." His trial date has not yet been set. 

The ruling comes as Florida’s state senate prepares to vote on a bill that would force prosecutors to prove that a defendant was not acting in self-defense before cases are brought to trial. That would shift the burden of proof away from defendants, putting Florida at the vanguard of the two dozen states with laws permitting the use of force in self-defense – in some cases, deadly force – in confrontations where a person "fears death or great bodily harm." 

Mr. Reeves had argued that the dispute had quickly become a “life-or-death struggle,” claiming that Mr. Oulson had struck him with either his fist or cell phone and cornered him in his seat, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

But Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle rejected that account, finding that surveillance video clearly countered Reeves’ claims of being hit or menaced by Oulson. Reeves appeared to have “initiated contact with the alleged victim on at least three occasions.”. 

“In fact, the video clearly shows that the closest the alleged victim ever came to the defendant was when his hand reached for and grabbed the defendant’s popcorn and threw it on him,” wrote the judge in her opinion, according to a local ABC affiliate. At that point, she added, Reeves lunged forward and fired at the alleged victim, "who at that point was so far back from the defendant that he could not even be seen in the video anymore."  

The new bill being considered by Florida’s Senate has garnered opposition from Democrats and prosecutors, who say it would stack the odds against victims of gun crimes and encourage vigilantism. 

"This legislation would effectively require defendants who raise stand your ground defenses to be convicted twice,” said Lucy McBath at a committee hearing on the bill, according to ABC News. Ms. McBath’s teenaged son Jordan Davis was fatally shot by Michael Dunn after an argument in Jacksonville. Mr. Dunn was later convicted of murder, though the first jury on the case was unable to reach a decision – an outcome McBath blames on jury instructions that, as in the 2013 Trayvon Martin case, included details about the stand- your-ground law.

Among supporters of the bill is Marissa Alexander, who was convicted in 2012 to 20 years in prison for firing what she calls a “warning shot" near her estranged husband, in another high-profile, stand-your-ground case in Florida. Ms. Alexander’s conviction was later thrown out, and she was freed in a 2014 plea deal. 

"So for me, one shot and a 12-minute verdict got me 20 years in my own home, concealed weapon license, white-collar worker,” she said, according to NPR.