The Curtis Reeves Trial: The Fine Line Between Self-Defense and Murder
Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson in a darkened movie theater on January 13, 2014. An argument erupted after 71-year-old Reeves asked 43-year-old Oulson to put his cell phone away during the previews for a showing of Lone Survivor. Oulson responded with an expletive-laden refusal, prompting Reeves to leave the theater to inform management. When Reeves returned to his seat, Oulson was no longer using his device, and Reeves said, “If I had known you put your phone away, I wouldn’t have involved the manager.”
Oulson’s response exhibited “explosive behavior, both verbally and physically,” Reeves said. “The ‘F’ word seemed to be his primary vocabulary at that point,” and according to Reeves’ testimony, “He was reaching for me or trying to get over the seat … I couldn’t get up. I was trapped.”
Oulson’s wife, Nicole, tried to intervene, putting her hand on her husband’s chest in an attempt to restrain him. Reeves claims Oulson threw something, hitting him in the head, although this was never corroborated nor disproven by evidence. Surveillance video shows Oulson grabbing Reeves’ bucket of popcorn and throwing it at him in the instant before Reeves pulls a pistol and fires one shot that pierces Nicole Oulson’s hand and penetrates Chad Oulson’s chest.
Ultimately, prosecutors charged Reeves with second-degree murder, claiming Reeves shot Oulson out of spite in response to the insult of being cursed at and having popcorn thrown in his face. Reeves says he never noticed the popcorn, but instead was fixated on Oulson’s “explosive behavior.” He claimed self-defense, stating, “In my mind, it was the blink of an eye. I shot Mr. Oulson because I thought he was going to seriously injure me or potentially kill me.” Reeves’ freedom depended on whether a jury believed the defender truly feared serious bodily injury or death, and also on whether jurors had reason to doubt that Reeves was acting out of spite as the state claimed.
Don West is a criminal defense attorney and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe. Don says, “The state went all-in on their theory that the thrown popcorn was the driving force that resulted in Reeves pulling his gun and shooting. If true, it certainly would characterize what we know as malice, ill-will, spite, or evil intent, but it’s almost as if the state had failed to appreciate some of the other evidence in the case.”
Some of that other evidence came from witness testimony. Firearms instructor Steve Moses notes two theater employees, including the manager, testified that Reeves did not seem upset when he reported Oulson’s phone use and that he appeared calm and reasonable. Moreover, Steve says, “Based on the surveillance video I saw, it did not seem to me that Reeves was terribly agitated.”
Don West suggests that Reeves’ 27-year law enforcement career likely factored into the jury’s assessment of his temperament as well. “He had been in, probably, hundreds of encounters with people who had the potential to do violence, and he had an ability, maybe, to predict better than most people the way these things escalate – to distinguish real threats from loudmouths. I have to think that the jury gave him credit for that and placed some value on his prior experience and training.”
Even if a jury believed that Reeves’ behavior failed to exhibit the spite required for a second-degree murder conviction, Reeves could still have been found guilty of a lesser-included charge such as manslaughter. To escape a conviction, the defense team would have to convince a jury that Reeves’ decision to use deadly force could have been reasonable under the circumstances. Their primary obstacle was the fact that Oulson was unarmed, which made it more difficult to suggest he posed a credible threat of serious bodily injury or death. We call the challenge of an armed defender facing an unarmed attacker “the armed defender’s dilemma.”
To overcome this legal obstacle, the defense team placed a lot of emphasis on the physical disparities between Reeves and Oulson. Reeves was 71, overweight, and arthritic. The defense dedicated nearly an entire day of trial to presenting testimony from an expert who could speak to the physical frailties associated with aging. At 43, Oulson was much closer to his prime, and at six-foot-four, he towered over Reeves – especially as Reeves sat, trapped in his seat.
Tactically speaking, Steve Moses says that a person in a seated position is at a considerable disadvantage in a physical confrontation. “If you’ve got someone that is bigger than you, and they’re standing over you, and you are seated,” Steve says, “to stand up, you would have to step right into them, and you’re very vulnerable going forward.”
Don West says, “Reeves, from his perspective, probably thought, ‘If this guy lands one solid blow to my head, I’m done. I’m unconscious, or I’m otherwise completely incapable of defending myself.’ He already had some contact, and it looked like he was preparing himself for more.” Subjectively, Reeves’ claim that his fear was genuine had some credibility.
“The objective assessment,” Don says, “is whether, looking at the totality of the circumstances, a third party could find Reeves’ perception of the danger reasonable.” In a self-defense trial, the jury is that objective third party, and in the Reeves case, the jury granted the defender an acquittal.
The lesson for concealed carriers is that there is a fine line between self-defense and murder. If Reeves had appeared slightly more agitated when he addressed the movie theater employees, the state’s argument that he acted out of malice might have had more traction. If Oulson had been slightly less explosive in his response, the objective assessment of the threat Oulson posed may have been less clear. Had the two men been closer in age and physical ability, Reeves’ fear of great bodily injury or death at the hands of an unarmed attacker may not have seemed as reasonable. At trial, Reeves’ freedom rested on how a jury interpreted these subtle nuances. If you ever find yourself facing the armed defender’s dilemma, you’ll want to make sure the severity and imminence of the threat are as clear and as articulable as possible so as to remove the nuance from the legal assessment of your justification for using deadly force.