Daily Trial Highlights: Movie Popcorn Murder Trial

Posted at 9:15 PM, February 15, 2022 and last updated 4:05 PM, September 21, 2022

DADE CITY, Fla. (Court TV) – A jury acquitted Curtis Reeves of fatally shooting a man in a movie theater during a dispute over cell phone use and popcorn. Reeves was charged with the Jan. 13, 2014, death of Chad Oulson. Investigators say the men got into an argument when Reeves confronted Oulson about texting. Surveillance video shows Oulson grab Reeves’ popcorn and throw it at him. Reeves then fires a gun, fatally wounding Oulson. Reeves, a retired Tampa police officer, was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery. Reeves pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense.

DAILY TRIAL HIGHIGHTS

DAY 10 – 2/25/22

DAY 9 – 2/24/22

  • Defense rests and the state declines to put up a rebuttal case.
  • Defendant Curtis Reeves’ testimony takes up the entire day and draws a packed house to the courtroom.
  • Curtis Reeves’ defense rested its case Thursday after calling its 17th witness, the defendant himself, who insisted that he fatally shot Chad Oulson because he was “trapped” in his seat and had no other way to defend himself.
    • “I thought this was the end of the line for me,” he said.
  • Reeves spent nearly five hours on the stand testifying about his law enforcement experience, his physical condition, and what was going through his mind when he crossed paths with Oulson and his wife inside the Cobb Theater in Wesley Chapel on January 13, 2014.
  • Reeves started his testimony by describing his rise through the Tampa Police Department to captain over 27 years, emphasizing his commitment to training and his development of the SWAT unit.
    • A bout with cancer hastened his retirement at 51, and he moved onto head of security at the Busch Entertainment theme park, he said.
    • He spent 11 years at the theme park before compounding health conditions caught up with him and he needed to get off his feet, he said.
  • On the shooting, Reeves said he was defending himself from a “volatile” man who attacked him twice in a short period of time.
    • Initially, however, Reeves said he did not perceive Oulson as a threat, but rather just a “mouthy” and “profane” moviegoer who refused to abide by the theater’s rules and put away his phone.
    • Reeves said it wasn’t until he returned to his seat after talking to the theater manager that Oulson started demonstrating “explosive behavior” and “uncontrolled rage.”
  • First, Reeves said he felt something hit him above his left eye – maybe a phone, maybe a fist – leaving his glasses “askew” on his face and blurring his vision. Reeves said the next thing he perceived was Oulson standing up, turning and coming at him in his seat.
    • “I’m sitting in a completely defensive position and he’s standing up — he looked like a monster in front of me,” he said. “I had nowhere to go and no way to get there.”
  • Reeves said he had no recollection of popcorn being thrown at him and did not shoot Oulson because of the popcorn.
    • “I shot Mr. Oulson because I thought he was gonna seriously injure me or potentially kill me,” he said. “I didn’t want to shoot anybody. I came to the theater with my family to enjoy a movie, not to be attacked by a man who was out of control.”
  • On cross, prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser challenged Reeves on his claim he was trying to deescalate the situation by pointing out inconsistences between his testimony and his police statements.
  • Reeves testified Thursday that upon returning to the theater, he saw Oulson staring at him and overheard him complaining.
    • He said he tried to defuse the situation by telling Oulson that he would not have gone to the manager if he’d put his phone away.
    • In his police statement, he never said Oulson was staring at him or that he heard Oulson grumbling or that he tried to “apologize” to Oulson, leading Rosenwasser to accuse Reeves of re-engaging with Oulson when Oulson had made it clear he wanted Reeves “out of his face.”
  • Rosenwasser also pointed out that Reeves did not tell police that Oulson stood up turned around to face him, as he testified.
    • In a lengthy exchange, Rosenwasser replayed the video and had Reeves look at multiple still photos to confirm what happened.
    • Reeves never wavered from his claim, but now the jury has something else to consider when they go into the jury room.
  • Upon re-watching the video, Reeves also agreed with Rosenwasser that light reflected off his shoe on the video as he walked into the theater.
    • But he did he stopped short of agreeing that the light reflected off his shoe while he sat in his seat, leaving open the possibility that the light source could have been Oulson’s phone.
  • Reeves ended his cross examination on a contrite note, saying he thinks about the incident every day and second-guesses his actions. “If you’re human and you have respect for human life you would second-guess [it] constantly.”
  • After the jury was dismissed, the parties discussed the jury instructions and the deliberations schedule.
  • If the jury does not reach a verdict Friday, the judge and lawyers on both sides said that they do not want to work Saturday.
    • But prosecutors said they would want the jury to be sequestered if they don’t reach a verdict Friday, leaving the judge saying, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
  • WATCH: 2/24/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 9
  • WATCH: 2/24/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Defendant Admits Second-Guessing Encounter With Victim
  • WATCH: 2/24/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Defendant on Cross-Examination
  • WATCH: 2/24/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Defendant Testifies About Shooting

DAY 8 – 2/23/22

  • After three defense expert witnesses and hours of contentious legal arguments, Judge Susan Barthle declared at 5 p.m. that it felt more like 8 p.m. and excused the jury.
  • Forensic radiologist Dr. Michael Foley described degenerative conditions in Reeves’ hands, back and shoulders that he said were present during (and before) the shooting.
  • The jury sees forensic consultant Michael Knox’s fiercely contested “Mannequin Chad” demonstrative photos after another round of arguments Wednesday morning over their admissibility.
  • Defense lawyer Michael Escobar’s questioning of Knox targets the investigation, which even prosecutor Scott Rossenwasser acknowledged (outside the jury’s presence) was “not great.”
  • Police trainer and use-of-force expert Roy Bedard described the external and physiological conditions that affect one’s threat-assessment process, culminating in his opinion that Curtis Reeves did not shoot Chad Oulson because of the popcorn.
  • Lawyers invoke Kim Potter and Michael Drejka (cases Court TV covered) in arguments over whether Bedard should have been allowed to testify about law enforcement’s use-of-force continuum and whether it applied to Reeves’ conduct as a civilian.
  • WATCH: 2/22/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 8

DAY 7 – 2/22/22

  • The jury heard from various witnesses who illuminated the defense case from different angles, including a witness to the shooting, a forensic pathologist, the movie theater general manager, investigators, and a video analyst.
  • After an hour-long Daubert hearing, Judge Barthle decides to let the defense’s crime scene reconstructionist show photos he took from Curtis Reeves’ seat of a mannequin in Oulson’s seat with trailers rolling in the theater to demonstrate the effect of backlighting.
  • WATCH: 2/22/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 7

DAY 6 – 2/21/22

  • Curtis Reeves’ wife — who was sitting next to him during his deadly movie theater altercation with Chad Oulson — corroborated key aspects of her husband’s account of the shooting, which he claims he did in self-defense. But Vivian Reeves said she did not witness the actual shooting and could not answer the question at the heart of the case: What if anything struck the defendant, compelling him to shoot Oulson?
  • Vivian Reeves told the jury in her husband’s second-degree murder trial that she wanted to change seats after Oulson cursed her at her husband for confronting Oulson about him using his cell phone in the dimly lit theater. Apparently, Curtis Reeves did not hear her and went to speak to the manager. When he returned, Vivian Reeves said more words were exchanged and Oulson suddenly stood up, turned to face her husband and leaned toward him before Reeves fired his pistol.
    • “I’d never been that scared like that [in] my whole life,” she said.
    • Vivian Reeves further testified that she didn’t see Oulson throw popcorn at her husband or strike or throw anything at him, adding, “I wish I had.”
  • Reeves’ testimony brought a dramatic crescendo to a day packed with expert testimony.
  • The jury heard from a leading expert on aging, Dr. Donna Cohen, who did not offer an opinion on Reeves’ actions. Instead, she spoke generally about the process of aging and coming to terms with one’s vulnerability.
    • She testified that a person’s circumstances – including their physical condition and limitations and life experiences — can affect their decisions and reactions.
  • The jury also got a crash course in forensic audio and video analysis from retired FBI agent and forensic consultant Bruce Koenig.
    • His testimony is key to the defense’s position that the surveillance video is unreliable because it doesn’t show the complete chain of events, including the moments before the shooting, when witness accounts differ on what if anything Oulson did to make the Reeves fear for their safety aside from throw popcorn.
  • The defense has tried to cast doubt on the investigation’s integrity by highlighting the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office failure to examine the hard drives that contained the recordings or make their own copies of the footage.
    • Instead, theater representatives provided investigators with copies days after suddenly removing the hard drives from the premises the night of the shooting and transporting to them Alabama.
      • Koenig said that without inspecting the DVRs, it was impossible to know the sensitivity settings of the cameras.
  • Judge Susan Barthle denied the defense’s request to roll previews of “Robocop,” “Sabotage” and other movies for the jury. Barthle sided with the state’s argument that playing them would be misleading because none of the witnesses could say which previews were playing during the confrontation.
  • WATCH: 2/21/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Defendant’s Wife Testifies
  • WATCH: 2/21/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 6

DAY 5 – 2/18/22

  • Day five of the trial began with the testimony of Pasco County Det. Aaron Smith. The defense tried to undermine the integrity of the investigation under Smith as the lead crime detective. Smith admitted he did not know that Reeves had claimed self-defense as her oversaw evidence collection and processing in the movie theater. Smith testified he might’ve done some things differently had he known Reeves claimed to have possibility been hit by a cell phone, like direct the investigator who collected Oulson’s cell phone to swab it for DNA or to change her gloves before handling the phone.
    • Otherwise, Smith stood by his decision to not record interviews with Matt Reeves or Vivian Reeves and to let theater employees make copies of the surveillance video for sheriff’s office instead of going into the server room himself. The next witness on the stand after Proctor, cyber crimes Det. Anthony Bossone, testified that he would have documented the room and made copies himself, but Proctor was assigned to the task, not him.
  • The defendant got misty-eyed as his two adult children took the stand and described symptoms of their father’s deteriorating physical condition in a bid to support the defense claim that Reeves was a frail man who feared for his safety when Oulson turned to face him during an argument about Oulson’s cell phone use in the dim theater, leading Reeves to pull his gun on Oulson.
  • Jennifer Shaw teared up describing how her the strong and physically active father she’d known her whole life struggled to pick up his granddaughter and asked for help dismantling a kayak paddle in the year before the shooting.
    • A tense cross examination of Shaw followed as assistant state attorney Scott Rosenwasser suggested Shaw was painting an exaggerated picture of her father’s condition. The prosecutor suggested that Reeves was just showing his age, a characterization Shaw agreed with. A terse back and forth ensued as Rosenwasser grilled Shaw on her father’s ability to execute a litany of tasks, from washing his car, tying his shoes, loading a bike onto his SUV, going clay shooting to pulling a trigger despite stiffness in his fingers.
  • After Shaw’s testimony, both sides questioned her brother Matthew Reeves at length about his father’s ability to participate in a deer-hunting trip the week before the shooting. Matthew Reeves also gave his account of what happened in the theater, including his efforts to save Oulson’s life.
    • On cross, a defense objection cut off prosecutor Glen Martin as he raised his voice and accused the witness of going into “police mode” by ordering bystanders into action at shooting scene (implication being just like his father).
  • Also Friday, jurors heard from the owner of the business that maintained Cobb Theater’s surveillance system. John P. Silas described removing the hard drives from all the recorders the night of the shooting at the theater’s request.
  • WATCH: 2/18/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial Day 5: Defendant’s Children Testify

DAY 4 – 2/17/22

  • The state rests after calling 15 witnesses.
  • Last two bystanders called to the stand.
  • In a motion for a judgement of acquittal, the defense argues Chad Oulson’s cell phone could be considered a deadly weapon and his perception that it was being used to harm him — which need not be actual under Florida law — justified his use of force.
  • Judge denies defense motion for judgement of acquittal, siding with prosecution’s argument that no evidence suggests Oulson threw his phone at Reeves.
  • Lead detective admits on cross that he lacked experience investigating self-defense cases and conducted the investigation in ways that some might consider violative of standard police practices.
  • WATCH: 2/17/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 4 

DAY 3 – 2/16/22

  • Both sides stipulate that Chad Oulson was looking at Facebook and not texting anyone before the shooting.
  • The jury hears from the defendant in his own words through two recorded police interviews. He said he shot Oulson in self-defense because “he scared the hell out of me.” He accuses Oulson of yelling and cursing at him, throwing something at him or possibly punching him, and leaning over his seat in a threatening way. He expresses remorse for Oulson and his family and said if he could do it again he would react differently, but “you don’t get do-overs.”
  • Testimony from a paramedic, a medical examiner, a detective, and a forensic investigator centers on whether the defendant sustained injuries in the encounter. They detected varying degrees of redness but no evident injuries.
  • The medical examiner explains what the gunshot wounds and stippling on Chad and Nicole Oulson tell us about the bullet trajectory.
  • WATCH: 2/16/22 Movie Popcorn Murder Trial: Day 3

DAY 2 – 2/15/22

  • Four eyewitnesses brought the jury inside the dimly lit movie theater with varied accounts that shared one key detail: the rapid succession of popcorn flying then a gunshot.
  • Three of those witnesses testified that they heard Chad Oulson used the f-word before the shooting, contradicting the testimony of his wife, who said Oulson did not use or direct any profanities toward Reeves.
  • On cross, the defense drew attention to the witnesses’ prior inconsistent statements about who was the angry aggressor, the victim or the defendant, and tried to cast doubt on the reliability of their accounts given the lighting conditions.
  • Defense lawyer Richard Escobar went especially hard on retired deputy Alan Hamilton, who intervened and grabbed Reeves’ gun. Hamilton told police Oulson leaned over the back of his chair to confront Reeves, but backed off that statement on the stand, saying it was more like Oulson was propped against the chair.
  • The jury saw photos of the defendant’s parked car outside the theater without handicapped placards, which could undermine the defendant’s claim that he was frail and in poor health.
  • Two forensic investigators described photos and physical exhibits of evidence collected from the defendant’s car and the movie theater, including his wallet, which had Reeves’ CCL and a firearms proficiency card.
  • On cross, one of those investigators, Amy Parish, testified that it’s possible that DNA could have transferred from the victim’s iPhone onto her glove when she picked it up, no doubt a point the defense hopes could explain the inconclusive DNA on the phone.
  • Clarification on courtroom color: The parties agreed by stipulation to let the defendant’s wife, Vivian Reeves, sit in on testimony even though she may be called as a witness.

DAY 1 – 2/14/22

Court TV field producer Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.

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