When Curtis Reeves Jr. killed a texting moviegoer and wounded a bystander at a theater outside Tampa yesterday with a .380 pistol, it sounded like a clear case of rage. But the 71-year-old retired cop may have been in fear for his life—and he may be able to take advantage of Florida's gun-friendly self-defense law.
Reeves told Pasco Sheriff's deputies Monday that Oulson stood up and struck him in the face with an unknown object when they were arguing inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater during previews. Reeves said he was "in fear of being attacked," according to an arrest affidavit.
But the county police aren't buying it, in part because the "unknown object" was a bag of movie popcorn:
Reeves wanted Oulson to stop texting. He walked out and complained to theater management. When Reeves returned to the 1:20 p.m. showing of Lone Survivor, "words were exchanged" and Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, an arrest affidavit states.
Witnesses say the pair did not throw punches. Then Reeves pulled a gun and shot Oulson, who was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Under Florida's stand your ground statute—an expansive cover-all advanced by the state's top NRA lobbyist in 2005—anyone can shoot to kill, assuming they reasonably feared for their physical well-being. And the definition of "reasonably" is quite elastic, law professor Charles Rose told Vander Velde:
Many factors could come into play, he said.
For one, when Oulson threw popcorn, that was technically assault under state law. Was it reasonable to respond with deadly force simply because of the popcorn? No, Rose said.
However, if Reeves considered the popcorn throwing to be one step in an escalating response from Oulson — and if the 71-year-old man feared that Oulson would come over the movie theater seats and physically attack him next — and if Reeves felt he wouldn't be able to handle such an attack from a younger man, then jurors might consider deadly force reasonable, the attorney said.
"Here's the problem: We're trying to look into the mind of the defendant and posit what the thought was happening," Rose said.
Looking into the mind of an elderly man who comes armed to a matinee showing of "Lone Survivor" shouldn't take long, really. But then again, this is Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not guilty, and where lawmakers are currently considering adding warning shots and the brandishing of weapons to the list of acts that could be protected under the stand your ground law. Until it all shakes out, residents are probably best served by a Redbox. Or kevlar.