Florida theater shooting: Will suspect's age open door to ‘stand your ground’?

Curtis Reeves was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of a man in a Florida movie theater after officials decided 'stand your ground' didn't apply. But his age, 71, could create leeway.

Mike Carlson/Reuters
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco (c.) speaks to the media as police tape surrounds the Cobb Grove 16 movie theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Jan. 13. A moviegoer shot and killed one person and wounded another on Monday when an argument over text messaging in the Florida theater showing the new war film 'Lone Survivor' erupted in gunfire, authorities said.

Curtis Reeves, the retired police captain who allegedly shot and killed a man who threw popcorn at him at a showing of “Lone Survivor” near Tampa on Monday, will remain in jail after a judge denied a bond request Tuesday.

Mr. Reeves was charged with second-degree murder after Pasco County, Fla., law enforcement officials considered and rejected the notion that the shooting of 43-year-old Chad Oulson inside the Wesley Chapel, Fla., movieplex was justified under the state’s hotly-debated “stand your ground” law, which allows armed people to shoot and kill someone in self-defense at the first hint of serious danger.

In denying Reeves bond, Judge Lynn Tepper rejected defense assertions that the second-degree murder charge was excessive. “The evidence of guilt is significant,” she said.

Despite the quickly filed murder charge, however, there’s a building debate in Florida about whether Reeves may be able to legally claim that he was justified in shooting Mr. Oulson, given both Reeves’ advanced age and his training as a police officer.

“Elderly people are a little bit more vulnerable than regular adults, so what may give a younger person a black eye could mean a cracked skull for a septuagenarian – that’s certainly a factor that may be figured in,” says Bob Dekle, a former Florida prosecutor who’s now a legal skills lecturer at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law in Gainesville.

“It’s also important to remember that probable cause [to arrest] is not a very high standard, it’s just right above suspicion, and the fact that the judge endorsed the officer’s … probable cause to arrest and then denied a bond, that’s pretty well standard.”

After Reeves confronted Oulson about his use of a cell phone to send text messages during the movie previews, an argument escalated quickly. Witnesses say that when the younger Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the elder man grabbed his .380 semi-automatic pistol out of a pants pocket and fired. He told police later that he was “in fear of being attacked.”

It’s legal in Florida to have a concealed gun in a movie theater, and retired police officers don’t need a special license to carry a gun as long as their certification is current.

To be sure, the mixture of texting, popcorn, and guns that led to Oulson’s death is being seen by some as a poignant commentary on shifting social expectations in public places, in the wake of liberalized gun laws that have turned America into “virtually a fully armed society,” as George Washington University law professor Bob Cottrol told the Monitor recently.

Legal experts point to the denial of bond and the police weighing of “stand your ground” before charging Reeves with murder as evidence that it will be difficult for him to argue self-defense.

Nevertheless, Reeves’ statements to police have at least hinted at a possibility that he could utilize the same law that became famous in the wake of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

“The defendant advised that he got into an argument with the victim over phone usage," the police report from Pasco County Sheriff's office said. "The defendant advised that the victim turned and stood up striking him in the face with an unknown object."

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said Tuesday that his office considered self-defense and rejected it out of hand as it applies to this shooting.

"I can tell you we wanted to make sure that [the ‘stand your ground’] defense was taken off the table," Nocco told the Tampa Bay Times.

Nevertheless, some legal experts say Reeves may be able to convince a judge and jury otherwise, but only if he can make them believe that he reasonably feared for his life before firing.

"Don't be quick to condemn" Reeves’ response to the popcorn attack, wrote Plant City defense attorney Ronald Tulin on his Facebook page. He noted that Florida law allows deadly self-defense in order to “prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. Attacking a senior citizen is a forcible felony in Florida.”

Moreover, the fact that Reeves is a retired local police captain could either help or hurt his case, going forward, says University of Florida’s Mr. Dekle.

“It’s a two-edged sword,” he says. “He’s got all this experience, he’s an expert at assessing threats, but, on the other hand, he ought to know better.”

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