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Curtis Reeves 'popcorn murder' trial could impact future stand-your-ground cases

Scholars, attorneys paying close watch to 8-year-old case
Posted at 9:56 AM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 10:03:01-05

It started with a cellphone in a movie theater and ended in death.

Eight years later, Curtis Reeves, 79, is in the midst of his murder trial using self-defense and stand-your-ground to keep him from, potentially, spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Reeves was a retired police captain when he shot and killed 43-year-old Chad Oulson in 2014 after an argument that started because Oulson was using his cellphone.

The argument escalated to Oulson eventually throwing popcorn at Reeves, authorities say.

Reeves maintains he pulled the trigger because he felt threatened by a much younger, physically fit, Oulson.

Reeves's defense team is also trying to prove that Oulson physically tried to strike Reeves before he tossed popcorn on the retired cop.

But the prosecution argues it's a clear case of murder.

As both sides lay out their cases in court before a 10-person jury, self-defense scholars and legal experts are watching the case closely for its historic significance.

"In 2005, I can guarantee you a case like this would not have made it as far as they have. Our society wasn't as desensitized as they are now," said Janae Thomas, a Tampa-based attorney and former assistant state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County.

Caroline Light, Harvard University professor
Caroline Light does not believe Curtis Reeves should be acquitted based on stand-your-ground.

"With this one, it could, literally, go either way and that's what makes it to me so interesting," said Harvard University professor Caroline Light.

Light wrote a book on stand-your-ground following the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The black unarmed teenager was shot and killed a decade ago by George Zimmerman, a then neighborhood watch captain who claimed Martin attacked him.

While stand-your-ground was not part of Zimmerman's defense at the time, the case pushed the little-known law into the national spotlight where today it remains in effect but controversial.

"If this ends up in acquittal, it is definitely a landmark, absolutely," said Light, referring to the Reeves case. "It adds additional fuel to this impetus to continue stretching, selectively, the boundaries of lethal self-defense.

Thomas agrees.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

"It's going to open the flood gates for these stand-your-ground cases because now we're going to say that people can go into public places, they can be armed, they can start a confrontation because that's what the evidence shows," Thomas said. "The victim [Oulson] was on a cellphone, he then proceeds to start a confrontation and then he [Reeves} shoots him."

Proponents say stand your ground which, in Florida, removes a person's "duty to retreat" from a threat before using a deadly force, makes the public safer by deterring potential attackers. Critics have long said it also encourages violence.

In a study released this week, researchers found stand your ground laws were linked to an 11% rise in homicides across the country, with the biggest jumps in southern states including Florida.

Neither Thomas nor Light believe Reeves should be acquitted based on stand-your-ground.

Janae Thomas, a Tampa-based attorney and former Assistant State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County
Janae Thomas shares her thought on the Curtis Reeves trial.

"This is not a stand-your-ground case. This is not what we were saying when we implemented this law," Thomas said.

During a hearing in 2017, a judge denied stand-your-ground as a legal defense to dismiss the case. But as part of the legal process, Reeves's attorneys are now making that argument to a jury, who will ultimately decide if they agree or disagree.

While the jury's conclusion remains to be seen, so too is any potential impact the final verdict will have on future gun violence cases, especially, Thomas and Light said, if the shooter walks away.

"This means more people with guns, seeing a certain right to use lethal aggression, and then say, after the fact, that they were in fear for their life," said Light if Reeves is found not guilty. "This to me is terrifying."

"I'll be watching it till the very end," said Thomas. "I think all of us should because it will say a lot about where our society is and the temperature of what our society is willing to tolerate."

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