The decision by Florida Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa to deny bail to Curtis Reeves, the former Tampa police captain charged with murdering fellow movie-goer Chad Oulson on Jan. 13 in an argument over texting, suggests a deeper concern over character that could play into the upcoming murder trial.
Judges traditionally show deference to police officers, even retired ones, for a good reason: They’re not infallible, but their word tends to rank high because they’re supposed to be dispassionate professionals.
In that light, the decision to keep the well-regarded former police officer in jail until a trial slated to start in March suggests that Judge Siracusa gave weight to the opinion of prosecutor Manny Garcia, who called Mr. Reeves “a ticking time bomb” that “exploded.”
The ruling stood in stark contrast to another well-known self-defense case, that of George Zimmerman, the former Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch captain who was released on bond even after a judge found he and his wife lied to the court about his finances. Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, last summer.
The theater shooting case is seen as important for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s part of a simmering national debate about whether a broader trend toward more liberalized gun and self-defense laws in states like Florida make society safer or more dangerous. The role of technology in daily life, and the ubiquity of what some see as rude texting, also has given the trial national poignancy.
To be sure, Reeves’ lawyers presented a slew of character witnesses at this week’s prolonged bond hearing in New Port Richey, including his wife, who told the judge he’d never in a long law enforcement career fired his gun.
“He’s never threatened anybody with a gun,” his wife told the court. Others said Reeves was not quick to anger.
And in his own testimony, Reeves said he was afraid of the younger man’s reaction to his requests for him to stop texting. Reeves said he was struck by an object, possibly Oulson’s cell phone, and then was attacked with popcorn. “I was defending myself,” he said.
Defense attorneys have argued that Reeves’ self defense may have been legitimate because it came in response to an attack that in Florida may be deemed criminal – to wit, using physical force against an elderly person, which is a felony.
But police and prosecutors have been skeptical of Reeves’ account for one powerful reason: The speed at which the argument turned deadly. A grainy security video shows Oulson throwing or striking Reeves with his cell phone, but it also shows how quickly Reeves made a decision to reach into his pocket, pull out his pistol, and fire.
"This occurred literally in a matter of seconds," John Trevena, a defense attorney in Pinellas County, told the Tampa Bay Times. "It makes the defense's job much more difficult when there hasn't been an ongoing confrontation that escalates with violence."
Mr. Trevena added: “Would a reasonable person feel the need to use deadly force based on what happened?"
The case has sparked debate far outside the Sunshine State. The editors of the Tahlequah, Okla., Daily Press wrote that Reeves’ decision to shoot so quickly has free speech implications.
“Florida prosecutors should throw the book at Reeves, with considerably more force than Oulson threw the popcorn,” they wrote recently. “Otherwise, exercising our First Amendment right to speak our minds will ultimately put us in fear for our lives.
There were other factors Judge Siracusa likely considered.
Nicole Oulson, Mr. Oulson’s widow, told ABC’s The View this week that her husband ignored Reeves’ repeated complaints until he finally stood up and retorted. Oulson was allegedly texting his 22-month-old daughter’s babysitter to tell her he was shutting his phone off to watch the movie, a feature called “Lone Survivor.”
"He's been an authority figure all his life," she said. "He's used to telling people what to do, and they say 'how high' when he says 'jump.' He no longer has that control."
In a taped interview with Reeves, a detective can be heard arguing with Reeves that even if Oulson is “100 percent wrong and you’re 100 percent right” it’s no reason to pull a weapon.
In the grainy video, Reeves is seen returning to his seat after apparently complaining about Oulson’s texting to a theater manager. The two men then again have an exchange. What happens next, in the defense team’s interpretation, is that Oulson throws his cell phone, then grabs Reeves’ popcorn and throws it at him. A beat later, Reeves grabs his gun and fires.
Reeves then questions his own judgment in a post-shooting interview with Pasco County detectives.
“As soon as I pulled the trigger, I said, ‘Oh, this is stupid,’” he said in the tape. “There’s no justification for what happened in there. If I had to do it over again, it would have never happened. We would have moved. But you don’t get do-overs.”
In denying bond, Judge Siracusa seemed to agree.