(CN) – A Florida judge on Friday rejected the “Stand Your Ground” defense of a retired police officer who must now stand trial for the fatal shooting of fellow moviegoer who angered him by texting before the main feature began.
In a decision filed Friday morning, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle questioned the veracity of Curtis Reeves’ testimony.
“Because the defendant’s testimony was significantly at odds with the physical evidence and other witness testimony, this court has considerable doubts about his credibility, and is not willing to come to the conclusion that these circumstances are those envisioned by the legislature when the “stand your ground” law was enacted,” she wrote in the one-page order.
The decision comes after a two week hearing in which the defense extolled the 74-year-old Reeves’ decorated past with the Tampa Police Department and painted police investigators responding to the shooting as incompetent. Prosecutors argued Reeves as overreacting to a simple argument that cost the life of Chad Oulson, a 43-year-old father and husband.
On January 13, 2014, Reeves and his wife arrived at a movie theater and sat behind Oulson and his wife to watch “Lone Survivor.” During the previews, Oulson checked his phone, prompting Reeves to ask him to put it away, because the light was distracting him. The argument heated up, prompting Oulson to toss popcorn at the retired officer’s head. Reeves leaned back, took out a pistol and shot Oulson in the chest.
Reeves and his attorney Richard Escobar maintained Oulson also hurled his cell phone at Reeves, possibly threw a punch and then towered over the older man, frightening him enough to shoot. Escobar repeatedly played a portion of surveillance video from the theater purportedly showing a reflective object hitting Reeves.
But Judge Barthle did not buy it.
“The video evidence contradicts this assertion, clearly showing that there was no hit from a fist, and the item argued by the defense to be a cell phone was simply a reflection from the defendant’s shoes,” Barthle wrote.
“In addition, common sense and the credible testimony of the medical examiner casts grave doubt on the likelihood of anything hitting the defendant in the eye beneath his glasses in the manner the defendant described,” she continued. “Which begs the question, why did the defendant say he was hit in the left eye, to the point of being dazed, when the video images and basic physics indicate that he did not get hit in the left eye with anything? The logical conclusion is that he was trying to justify his actions after the fact.”
Barthle also did not believe Reeves was in fear for his life.
“His conduct demonstrated that he was not afraid of the alleged victim: the defendant initiated contact with the alleged victim on at least three occasions and was not concerned about leaving his wife there alone when he went to talk to the manager,” she wrote. “As he was trained extensively in handling firearms and dealing with conflict situations, he was far better prepared than the average person to deal with situations such as this one. Furthermore, the defendant did not appear to be frail by any means; on the contrary he is quite a large and robust man. He also appeared quite self-assured when he was testifying, and certainly did not appear to be a man who was afraid of anyone.”
Reeves’ attorney Richard Escobar and state attorney Glenn Martin could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Stand Your Ground law allows Florida residents to use deadly force to defend their lives or their property. Since Reeves failed to prove immunity under the law, the case will now go to a full jury trial.
The movie theater shooting was the latest flashpoint in the rocky history of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
It first received national attention after the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman ultimately waived his right to a “stand your ground” pretrial immunity hearing like the one just concluded in Reeve’s case, and instead opted for a self-defense case.
Many saw the shooting as racially motivated (Martin was black; Zimmerman is Hispanic) and expressed outrage when Zimmerman was acquitted.
A 2012 study by the Tampa Bay Times found the law had been invoked more than 200 times since its inception and allowed 70 percent of those accused to walk free. Gang members and drug dealers were among those who never faced murder charges, the study said.
But pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association have praised the laws, which more than half of the country has enacted over the last decade.
This decision will sure impact the current debate over the law in the Florida Legislature.
Sen. Rob Bradley filed SB 128, which would shift the burden of proof to the prosecutor.
The Florida Senate may vote on that bill as early as today.
Caption: Reeves, left, talks with his attorney Richard Escobar on the first day of his hearing. Credit: Tampa Bay Times/AP pool photo