A .380 semi-automatic handgun sits on a newspaper (ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Meg Wagner
A fight about texting
A retired Florida police captain who shot and killed a man in 2014 inside a movie theater during a dispute over texting can’t use the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law to defend himself, a judge ruled Friday.
Curtis Reeves, 74, will stand trial for the shooting death of 43-year-old Chad Oulson. He faces second-degree murder charges.
Reeves and his lawyers had argued that he deserved immunity from prosecution under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, which allows anyone who fears death or great bodily harm to use deadly force during a violent confrontation.
Reeves, a former Tampa Police Department captain claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot Oulson during the previews of a Jan. 13, 2014 showing of the Afghanistan war drama Lone Survivor at Wesley Chapel’s Cobb Grove 16 cinemas.
Oulson had been texting as he waited for the movie to begin. When Reeves complained and asked him to turn his phone off, Oulson cursed at him, threw popcorn and tried to attack him, Reeves claimed.
"He was in a fit of rage,” Reeves testified.
But Circuit Judge Susan Barthle ultimately sided with prosecutors, who argued that Reeves should not be allowed to use the “stand your ground” defense because he provoked the argument. Barthle wrote that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Oulson was threatening Reeves; In fact, video from the theater showed Reeves lunging at Oulson, not the other way around.
“(Reeves) also appeared quite self-assured when he was testifying, and certainly did not appear to be a man who was afraid of anyone,” she wrote in her decision.
‘Stand your ground’ or ‘shoot first’?
Florida passed its “stand your ground” statute in 2005, becoming the first state in the nation to implement such aggressive self-defense legislation.
Usually, anyone who feels attacked has a duty to retreat and remove themselves from an altercation (if they have a safe way to do so) before resorting to self-defense violence. But the “stand your ground” doctrine says it's every citizen’s right to stand up for him or herself: Citizens can use deadly force as soon as they fear for their lives or wellbeing — even if they have a safe way to get away.
“Stand your ground” proponents claim that no one should be forced to retreat when they are attacked, and claim the law removes the long legal proceedings necessary to vindicate those who use deadly force in self-defense.
Critics sometimes call the statue a “shoot first” law, insisting that not only is the law unnecessary — federal and state laws already include the concept of self-defense — but also dangerous, since it may encourage people to resort to violence when there are still other options on the table.
Since Florida passed the law, more than 20 other states have followed suit with similar “stand your ground” laws.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin is most famously — and mistakenly — attributed to Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
While Zimmerman claimed he killed unarmed teenager Martin in self-defense, his legal team never invoked the “stand your ground” law. They insisted that killing the teen was Zimmerman’s only option, and “Stand your ground” only applies if there’s a nonviolent way to end the threat. However, while Zimmerman did not invoke the law, it was included in the jury’s deliberation instructions.
Between 2005 and 2013 there were more than 200 cases in Florida that used the “stand your ground” defense.
More protection for ‘stand your ground’ invokers
Reeves’ bid for “stand your ground” immunity was denied because he could not prove that he was acting in self-defense — but some Florida lawmakers want to flip the burden of proof to the prosecution.
A bill in Florida’s Senate would require that prosecutors prove that a “stand your ground” defendant was not acting in self-defense. Essentially, it would give those who use deadly force even more protection, because they would not be responsible for showing that their actions were justified.
Sen. Rob Bradley, who introduced the bill, said that it’s “not a novel concept,” because in other court cases, prosecutors must prove the case, while the defendant is presumed innocent and must be proven guilty.
"We have a tradition in our criminal justice system that the burden of proof is with the government from the beginning of the case to the end," he said, though so-called affirmative defenses — like "stand your ground," the more general self-defense argument and diminished capacity — actually do require that defendant meet a burden of proof.
If the bill passes, it would be another self-defense first in Florida’s history. Only four other states with “stand your ground” laws mention the burden of proof in their statues, and all of them say it falls on the defense, not the prosecution.
A vote in Florida’s Senate is expected as early as Friday.