Will 'Stand Your Ground' Apply To The Tampa Movie Theater Shooter?

Jan 15, 2014

A retired Tampa police officer is being charged with second degree murder after shooting a fellow theatergoer during movie previews Monday in an incident that has sparked national attention.

Curtis Reeves, 71, shot and killed 43-year-old Chad Oulson, reportedly following an argument started by Reeves because Oulson was texting his daughter during movie previews.

Reeves’ attorney may mount what’s being called the “popcorn defense” after  witnesses said Oulson threw his bag of popcorn at Reeves when the two got into a dispute over the texting. Reeves then shot Oulson.

The case once again has the country talking about Florida’s controversial gun policies, including the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.

Curtis Reeves during his first court appearance for the shooting of Chad Oulson Monday, Jan. 13, at Tampa area movie theater.
Credit WTSP

Florida Coastal School of Law professor Rod Sullivan and Jacksonville attorney John Phillips joined Melissa Ross to discuss the case against Curtis Reeves. 

During his first court appearance on Tuesday, Reeves' lawyer argued that Oulson was the aggressor in the altercation.

The police report on the incident says Reeves was struck by an "unknown object" before witnesses say he drew on Oulson. The object, police now say, was a bag of popcorn.

"There were 25 people in the movie theater. Nobody saw a weapon, nobody saw Oulson strike Reeves, and therefore it doesn't appear like he's going to have an evidence to support that type of defense," Sullivan said, laying out the facts of the case as they've been reported thus far.

However, Sullivan said, if evidence surfaces that Oulson may have had a weapon, like brass knuckles, that defense could become relevant.

"Under 'Stand Your Ground' you have the right to make a choice," he said, noting the controversy that has surrounded the law since it first came to national attention during the trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

"I think Stand Your Ground is a little blown out proportion as turning Florida into a free fire zone. I really think it's captured the public's imagination, but that's not really the facts," he said.

Attorney John Philips disagreed.

Philips is representing the family of Jordan Davis, the Jacksonville teenager who was shot in November 2012 during an argument over loud music, in the case against his alleged assailant Michael Dunn. Dunn is expected to try to use "Stand Your Ground" during his defense.

"It's creating an entitlement within those who know the law, within those that carry guns regularly," he said. "You're just kind of changing America; it's a new normal with Stand Your Ground."

Since Monday's incident, a woman has come forward and described being glared at and followed by Reeves in the same theater after he asked her to stop texting.

"Stand Your Ground comes in from the moment that person walks around with the gun and it just creates this new normal of when you can kill," Philips said, noting jury instructions in the Zimmerman case that they should find he had the right to stand his ground if he felt like he was in mortal fear for his life.

"Then the question is, what is reasonable mortal fear of your life?" Philips said.

Sullivan noted that the judge will get to decide whether Stand Your Ground can be applied in this case.

"Is the judge going to look at this and say, 'I think you were in reasonable fear for your life because somebody stuck their hand in their pocket after throwing popcorn at you'?"

"I think that the odds of that ever succeeding are extremely small," Sullivan said, adding that there would have to be substantial evidence that Oulson was the aggressor for the defense to be allowed.

Sullivan also pointed out a few facts on the law people might not be aware of.

Under the statute you aren't allowed to use deadly force in defense of property, and you always have the right to use deadly force in your own home under the so-called "castle doctrine."

Reeves is currently being held without bail.

You can follow Melissa Ross on Twitter @MelissainJax Patrick Donges on Twitter at @patrickhdonges.