“Popcorn Murder” Trial Coverage by Andrew Branca Day 7
The opinions and statements made in this article are solely those of Andrew Branca and do not represent any position or opinion of CCW Safe. We chose to share this content in order to provide some insight to the trial process.
Popcorn Shooter Trial Day 7: Defense Medical Expert Smokes Prosecution on Cross-Examination
Yesterday was the seventh day of testimony in the murder trial of Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa SWAT Captain who shot and killed Chad Oulson in a local movie theater in January 2014 after the two men had a verbal altercation that became physical.
The defense presented seven additional witnesses yesterday, if we include carrying over forensic video consultant Bruce Koenig from the previous day as the first witness of the morning. Successive witnesses included Joanna Turner, another theater eyewitness who observed some of the interaction between Reeves and Oulson, Sergeant David Duff and Corporal Christina Demas, two police officers who responded to the scene of the shooting as part of the investigation, Dawn Michelle Simpson, the woman seen at the customer service desk where Reeves went to complain about Oulson’s cell phone usage, and Thomas Peck, the theater manager at the customer service desk.
The highlight of the day, however, was the final witness—Dr. Vernard Adams, the forensic pathologist expert witness retained by the defense. Indeed, once again the State managed to score a rather massive own goal in an inept cross-examination of a defense witness, as they’d done previously with Vivian Reeves and others. The expression on Dr. Adams’ face at the end of cross rather tells the story, and can be seen in the featured image to today’s content.
The video testimony of all seven of these witnesses is also embedded below, although our commentary here will be focused on the testimony of Dr. Adams.
Dr. Vernard Adams, Forensic Pathologist
The defense had retained Dr. Vernard Adams as a forensic pathologist expert witness, and presented him as the final witness of yesterday’s court proceedings. As has often been the case in this trial, much of the testimony of Dr. Adams was tiresome in the extreme. The cross-examination would make all the tiresome portions worth it, however.
Dr. Vernard Adams, Direct Questioning
Most of the direct questioning, conducted by Defense Counsel Dino Michaels, was focused on theoretical injuries that Curtis Reeves might have suffered at the hands of Chad Oulson, had Oulson followed through on his initial physical aggression upon Reeves rather than been stopped by Reeves’ .380-caliber bullet to his chest.
These theoretical injuries included a great deal of potential skeletal damage, including broken bones of the skull (temple, orbital sockets, jaw, teeth, chin bones), as well as the spine, and ribs. Potential soft tissue injuries were also referenced, including to the liver, spleen, and even the testicles. For this lengthy—really, far too lengthy—discussion the defense had rolled out a suspended human skeleton for demonstrative purposes.
In fact, Reeves suffered no such actual injury. Of course, lawful self-defense does not require the defender to suffer even so much as a scratch before they are privileged to use defensive force—rather, the law allows for the use of defensive force to prevent an attack or injury that is imminently about to happen. You need not take the first punch or bullet before you are privileged to defend yourself.
So, understanding the dangerous injuries to which Reeves might imminently have been subject is certainly relevant in this case. Whether such lengthy testimony was required by Dr. Adams on this matter is more questionable, however.
The jury is likely to know to a large extent that the thrown fists of a towering 6’ 4” 220 pound 43-year-old are likely to cause serious bodily injury when hurled against a seated 71-year-old. More modest testimony would likely have been sufficient to make clear that these injuries could be deadly in nature, in the legal sense—meaning, could well have constituted serious bodily injury.
Nevertheless, Dr. Adams’ testimony grew more interesting near the end of his direct examination by Attorney Michaels, when he began to address the stippling observed on Chad Oulson’s hand.
Stippling, of course, is the result of unburned powder ejected from the muzzle of a gun along with the bullet in a cone-shaped pattern centered around the fired round. Over the distance of a couple of feet this unburned powder has sufficient momentum and mass to embed itself in human skin. The pattern that results can be informative circumstantial evidence about the relative positions and postures of the body stippled relative to the muzzle of the gun.
With respect to Chad Oulson, there was additional forensic evidence that added value to the stippling assessment—the bullet that would enter Oulson’s chest and kill him had first grazed the top of Oulson’s hand, at right about the base knuckle of the thumb.
This grazing wound to the hand can be matched to the path of the bullet inside Oulson’s chest, such that we can know the relative position of the hand to both the chest and the muzzle of Reeves’ gun when the single round was fired. The result of all this is that it can be determined that the back of Oulson’s hand was facing more or less directly towards the muzzle of Reeves’ pistol.
Even more interesting, however, is the resultant stippling pattern. Because the graze wound identifies the center of the cone of ejected powder, one might expect to see stippling extending both along Oulson’s wrist and forearm as well as out along his fingers. This would be the case if his hand were flat, with the fingers extended, such that the back of the fingers were also facing towards the muzzle of Reeves’ pistol.
Although such stippling was observed along the wrist and forearm, however, there was no stippling along Oulson’s fingers. This absence of stippling along the backs of the fingers suggests that the hand was not in a flat configuration, but rather clenched in a fist.
Exactly as if Oulson’s fists were clenched such as to rain punches upon Curtis Reeves—yet more evidence consistent with Reeves’ narrative of self-defense.
Dr. Vernard Adams, Cross-Examination
Cross-examination of Dr. Adams was conducted by lead Prosecutor Glenn Martin, and as already noted resulted in another own goal by the State—and a personally embarrassing performance by Martin.
Martin began poorly by informing Dr. Adams that he intended to cover once again every form of theoretical injury that Adams had already discussed on direct—indeed, Martin explicitly recited a bullet list of the many injuries discussed on direct. This, of course, only once again informed the jury of the many ways Reeves could have suffered serious bodily harm at the hands of the attacking Oulson.
It only got worse from there, however.
Before digging into the details of those many theoretical injuries, Martin sought to first impeach Dr. Adams’ testimony about the relative position and manner of Oulson’s hand.
Isn’t it possible that the stippling pattern, with the absence of stippling on the backs of the fingers, resulted from the Oulson having his wrist bent sharply towards his own body? No, Adams replied, the graze wound informed us that the back of Oulson’s hand was facing Reeves’ muzzle.
Well, then, isn’t it possible that there was no stippling on the fingers because the cone of stippling was not broad enough to reach that far along the hand? No, Adams replied, the stippling surrounds the bullet evenly, so would be evenly distributed around the graze wound to the hand, and we can tell from how far the stippling extends along the forearm how far the stippling would extend towards the fingers.
Then Prosecutor Martin began to truly implode his cross-examination.
Isn’t it true, asked Martin, that when you testified in the self-defense immunity hearing in 2017, that you did say one reason there might be no stippling on the fingers was because the cone of stippling might have been too narrow?
I don’t recall saying that, answered Adams.
It’s right here in the transcript, replied Martin hotly, waving the transcript in his hand.
Really, replied Adams. Can I see the transcript?
Shockingly, Martin replied: No.
Then followed a tug-of-war between Dr. Adams asking to see the transcript that purported to show contradictory testimony by himself five years earlier, and Prosecutor Martin’s repeated refusal to allow Adams to see that transcript.
It created for all the world the appearance that Martin was hiding evidence, or at least hiding the cherry-picking of out-of-context prior testimony, from the jury. Recall that the State had previously been caught doing exactly this kind of out-of-context cherry-picking when they sought to impeach the testimony of Vivian Reeves earlier in the week. .
When the court finally ordered Martin to show Dr. Adams the transcript so that the doctor could refresh his recollection, it immediately became clear that at best the prior testimony was ambiguous. Perhaps, Dr. Adams suggested, he had misunderstood the nature of the question asked five years earlier. In any case, it was his testimony right here in court today that was the medically correct answer to the stippling issue.
Further, noted Dr. Adams, he had no way of knowing if the transcript was, in fact, an adequate record of his comments five years prior. The transcript was the result of the work of a court reporter, a non-expert in medical matters, who may or may not have accurately captured his testimony. Unlike with a deposition transcript, Dr. Adams had had no opportunity to review the immunity hearing transcript afterwards and ensure it was an accurate record of his testimony. For all he knew, the transcript being waved around by Prosecutor Martin was simply mistaken.
This all left Prosecutor Martin visibly enraged. Indeed, so out of sorts was he that he entirely forgot to impeach the lengthy bullet list of theoretical injuries that he’d set out for the jury at the start of his cross-examination. The result of this failure was that the jury heard even the State list the many theoretical injuries threatening Reeves, but never heard this laundry list of injuries impeached.
It appeared to my eye as if Prosecutor Martin had believed deep in his heart that he had caught Dr. Adams in a “gotcha” prior inconsistent statement, and was utterly confident he was going to destroy the defense expert on the witness stand—only to find the destruction turned upon himself. He just couldn’t believe it.
Frankly, at this point one wonders if the State in this case is growing panicked. For eight years Prosecutor Martin—and the media, but I repeat myself—have been telling the entire world that Reeves’ shooting of Oulson was simply a murder over popcorn, and obviously so. Now, perhaps, they are beginning to see a conviction slipping from their grasp—a fear they certainly ought to be realizing at this point of the trial.
How incompetent is this prosecution going to look if the case they presented for nearly a decade as obvious malice murder is one they can’t convict on?
Dr. Vernard Adams, Re-Direct
Dr. Vernard Adams, Re-Cross
Dr. Vernard Adams, Re-Re-Direct
Bruce Koenig, Forensic Video Consultant
To rewind to the start of the day, the first witness was Bruce Koenig, who continued his forensic video consultant expert testimony from the previous day. This again consisted of rather interminable playing of videos and publication of still photos to the jury, without any substantive commentary or analysis by Koenig himself.
Joann Turner, Theater Eye Witness
We then heard from Joanna Turner, another theater eye witness who was seated near the Reeves, and who observed some of the interaction between Reeves and Oulson.
Turner’s testimony was frequently ambiguous. On direct by Defense Counsel Richard Escobar she did testify that she appeared to see Oulson throw an object at Reeves, and then on cross-examination by Prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser she was less certain about the nature of the object thrown, thinking it might have been a thermos rather than a phone.
Overall, however, Turner’s testimony was largely consistent with Reeves’ narrative of self-defense, and certainly not contradictory to it.
Indeed, perhaps the most interesting part of Turner’s testimony wasn’t her testimony itself, but rather the truly remarkable series of leading questions that Attorney Escobar was permitted to ask of his witness on direct examination.
A leading question is, of course, one in which the question itself suggests the answer: “Isn’t it true the suspect’s jacket was red?” instead of “Can you tell us what color the jacket was?” When called on his leading questions by the defense, Escobar would simply then begin preceding each of his leading questions with the phrase, “Would you agree or disagree that …,” as if that magically made the question non-leading. Asking “Do you agree or disagree that the jacket was red?” however is no less a leading question simply because of that prefatory phrase. It was literally laugh out loud funny.
More remarkably was that Judge Susan Barthle allowed Escobar to get away with this ridiculous series of leading questions—which suggests, perhaps, that Judge Barthle’s own understanding of what constitutes a leading question is rather more tenuous than one would expect from a trial judge.
Two Additional Investigative Police Officers
We then heard from two more police officers who responded to the theater as part of the investigation following the shooting. These were a remarkably rotund Sergeant David Duff, and Corporal Christina Demas. Their brief testimony was an extension of the defense’s ongoing effort to cast the overall investigation into the shooting as incompetent.
Dawn Michelle Simpson, Customer at Service Counter
Next up was Dawn Simpson, the woman seen in surveillance footage at the customer service counter talking to the theater manager when Reeves approached to complain about Oulson’s cell phone use. The defense on direct examination by Attorney Escobar drew from Simpson testimony that Reeves appeared calm and reasonable in his demeanor at the customer service counter.
The more interesting, and rather bizarre facet of this testimony was the cross-examination by Prosecutor Manuel Garcia. Isn’t it true, he asked hotly, that Reeves had indicated no sense of urgency in his complaint to the manager?
Simpson agreed this was the case—but this testimony would appear to favor the defense narrative of Reeves as calm and reasonable, rather than the State narrative of Reeves as the muttering raving lunatic who would go on to murder Oulson over thrown popcorn.
Thomas James Peck, Theater Manager
Next up was the manager of the theater who was at that customer service counter, Thomas Peck. On direct questioning by Attorney Escobar, Peck affirmed that the theater announcement to turn off phones had occurred prior to Reeves appearing to complain about Oulson’s cell phone use. Like Simpson, Peck also confirmed that Reeves presented as calm and reasonable, not irate or angry.
Cross-examination was again conducted by Prosecutor Garcia, who again took the odd position of hotly demanding whether or not it was true that Reeves suggested no sense of urgency in his complaint to Peck? Peck agreed, but once again this lack of any apparent urgency on the part of Reeves would seem to favor the defense rather than the State.
The next witness after Peck was Dr. Vernard Adams, the last witness of the day, who we already covered in detail above.
That’s it on the Reeves trial for the moment, folks.
Live-Stream Commentary & Analysis of Today’s Proceedings!
Also, I’ll once again be doing live stream analysis and commentary over at Rekieta Law’s YouTube channel. You’ll be able to find today’s live show for the eighth day of this trial at:
Today we expect to hear from defense use-of-force expert witness Dr. Roy Bedard, which should be fun—although apparently Judge Barthle has not yet made a final ruling on whether to grant the State’s motion in limine to exclude Dr. Bedard’s expert testimony. I suppose we’ll find out this morning.
You carry a gun so you’re hard to kill.
Know the law so you’re hard to convict.
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Nothing in this content constitutes legal advice. Nothing in this content establishes an attorney-client relationship, nor confidentiality. If you are in immediate need of legal advice, retain a licensed, competent attorney in the relevant jurisdiction.
Attorney Andrew F. Branca is in his third decade of practicing law, specializing in self-defense law of the United States, where he is an internationally recognized expert. Andrew has contributed in this context by the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and many others, including nationally syndicated broadcast media. Andrew is also a host on the Outdoor Channel’s TV show The Best Defense and contributor to the National Review Online.
Andrew is a former Guest Instructor and subject matter expert (SME) on self-defense law at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy at Quantico and the Sig Sauer Academy, an NRA Life-Benefactor member, an NRA Certified Instructor, an IDPA Charter/Life member (IDPA #13), and a Master-class competitor in multiple IDPA divisions. Andrew teaches lawyers how to argue self-defense cases as a certified instructor with the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) system in numerous states around the country.
In addition to being a lawyer, Andrew is also a competitive handgun shooter, an IDPA Charter/Life member (IDPA #13), and a Master-class competitor in multiple IDPA divisions.
Recently, Andrew won the UC Berkeley Law School Debate on “Stand-Your-Ground,” and spoke at the NRA Annual Meeting on self-defense law.