Popcorn toss key in trial of fatal shooting inside Florida movie theater

‘This isn’t about popcorn,’ says attorney for Curtis Reeves

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The role of a tossed bag of movie popcorn played a central part Monday as a trial opened for a retired Florida police captain who fatally shot a man in a theater eight years ago.

The question isn't whether Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson at the theater on Jan. 13, 2014. It's whether Reeves felt threatened enough by Oulson to justify firing his .380-caliber handgun after the two argued over Oulson's cellphone use in the theater.

To prosecutors, the triggering event in the argument was Oulson's tossing of a bag of popcorn at Reeves — and that's not enough to claim self-defense.

“What the evidence will show you is that Chad Oulson was shot and killed over tossing popcorn,” Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser told jurors in an opening statement. “That's no reason to kill another person.”

The defense, however, contends that Reeves, then 71, was in declining health and feared the 43-year-old, larger Oulson would punch or otherwise assault him — and may have thrown his cellphone at the older man. Defense attorney Dino Michaels said Reeves also understood risk and sensed danger from his 27 years with the Tampa Police Department.

“This isn't about popcorn,” Michaels told the jury. “You're going to see there was an attack before the popcorn was thrown.”

Reeves, now 79, faces a potential life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The trial, expected to last about three weeks, is being heard by a jury of four men and two women with four alternates.

Nicole Oulson, wife of Chad Oulson, was struck in the hand by the same bullet that killed her husband. She testified Monday that the two men bickered over the cellphone dispute and at one point Chad Oulson stood up, causing her to put her left hand near his chest to guide him back to his seat.

That's when the shot was fired, she testified, nearly severing a finger.

“I felt like my hand was blown off,” Nicole Oulson said. “He took a couple of steps and then collapsed. I knew he was way worse than me.”

The case has been delayed for years as Reeves sought protection under Florida's “stand your ground” law that allows use of deadly force in the face of mortal danger or fear of serious injury. Reeves has been on house arrest during most of that time.

A judge ruled against him, but Reeves appealed. Lawmakers meanwhile changed the law to shift the burden of proof to prosecutors, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the changes didn’t affect cases such as Reeves' retroactively.

The shooting happened after Reeves and Oulson, and their wives, went to a matinee showing of the Mark Wahlberg film “Lone Survivor” at a theater complex in Wesley Chapel, a suburb of Tampa.

Oulson was using his cellphone during previews before the movie began, prosecutors say, in part to check on his young daughter at a local daycare. Reeves demanded that Oulson stop using the phone and was met with a curse-filled response, Michaels told the jury.

“Chad Oulson was annoyed when Curtis Reeves tells him to put his phone away. He stays annoyed,” Michaels said.

Nicole Oulson testified she did not hear any profanity from her husband in the exchange.

“He said, 'What's your problem? The movie hasn't even started yet,'" she said, quoting her husband.

Reeves went to theater management about Oulson's phone use, returned to his seat and that's when the argument resumed, the popcorn was tossed and Reeves shot Oulson in the chest, according to trial evidence.

Much of the confrontation was captured on grainy theater camera video, but it has no sound. Dozens of witnesses have been listed for trial but it's not clear how many will actually testify.

Rosenwasser, the prosecutor, said the evidence will prove that Reeves was incensed by Oulson's cellphone use and couldn't let it go.

“He appeared to be agitated and angry,” Rosenwasser said. “This was an intentional and purposeful shooting.”