(CN) – Three years after an argument over texting in a Florida movie theater ended in a 43-year-old man’s death, the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law is under scrutiny in a hearing underway in a small courthouse about an hour north of Tampa.
Prosecutors say Curtis Reeves, a retired police captain, killed Chad Oulson during an argument in the Wesley Chapel theater in January 2014.
But Reeves attorney, Dino Michaels, contends a video from that night will show Oulson attacked the older man first and the former officer acted in self-defense.
The Stand Your Ground law allows Florida residents to use deadly force to defend their lives or their property. If Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle determines the incident meets the proper criteria, Reeves will be immune from criminal prosecution and civil action.
If not, he will be tried for second-degree murder.
For now his fate is in the hands of Barthle, who is presiding over a hearing on that very question. The hearing is supposed to continue for the next two weeks.
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. When Oulson refused, Reeves left to contact a manager. When Reeves returned, the argument continued.
What happened next is still contested.
In his opening statement, Dino Michaels said Oulson stood over Reeves, tossed popcorn at him, and then threw another object – probably his cell phone – at the retired officer’s head.
“Oulson’s behavior terrified Mr. Reeves,” Michaels told the court, “and terrified his wife who was sitting next to him.”
Reeves leaned back, took out a pistol and shot Oulson in the chest.
“He acted reasonably because of his background, because of his training, because of the situation,” Michaels said of his client..
Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin painted a different picture.
Martin said Reeves instigated the argument and had “non-consensual contact” with Oulson three times before the younger man stood up. According to Martin, Reese had already begun pulling out his pistol after Oulson threw “fluffy popcorn” at him, while reportedly saying, “Throw popcorn on me will you?”
“Was it reasonably necessary to prevent immediate great bodily harm, death or forcible felony?” Martin asked the court. “When we talk about stand your ground, it has to be just right.”
The movie theater shooting is another flashpoint in the rocky history of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
It first received national attention after the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.
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.
Reeves’ attorney plans to focus on his credibility as a former police captain and vulnerability due to his age.
The first two witnesses, Reeves’ children, described a man struggling to remain active in his golden years.
“I’ve seen my dad push him limits to remain active,” said Jennifer Shaw on the stand, describing her father’s difficulties opening a jar or picking up her child.
Reeves’ son, himself a police officer, had just stepped inside the theater when the shooting occurred. In his testimony, Matthew Reeves heard his father’s voice just before the sound of the gun.
He then described the wounded Oulson taking a step back and stumbling down the theater stairs. The younger Reeves attended to Oulson’s wounds before a nurse appeared.
When Reeves looked up to see his father, he testified, the man’s glasses were askew and his hand was pressed against the side of his head. His mother?
“She was shaking,” he said.