The eight years since Curtis Reeves shot Chad Oulson in a Pasco County movie theater can also be measured this way:
A pandemic, three judges, 10 days for a helpless hearing, a number of prosecutors, countless hearings and over 100 witness statements. The rest were five foiled trial dates and delays that frustrated Oulson’s family and baffled observers.
But after all of that, it looks like a trial may well take place this time around.
It is scheduled to start on February 7 and is expected to last three weeks. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Lewis heard a flurry of pending motions last week in a typical move in the final stages before trial. The lawyers involved seem more confident than they were before.
“It seems that finally all the parties (…) are all on the same wavelength for the trial to finally take place,” said TJ Grimaldi, the lawyer representing Oulson’s widow, Nicole Oulson, who is a witness in the case.
“We are trying to make this our trial date,” Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said, adding that the case had become “an embarrassment for the criminal justice system.”
“Oh yeah. We’re going to trial that day,” said Reeves’ attorney Richard Escobar, whom Bartlett and Grimaldi accused of intentionally delaying the case. Escobar said he and his partners d ‘trial had already paid for a rental house in the Lake Jovita area, near the town of Dade, where the case will be tried.
Reeves, a 79-year-old retired Tampa police captain, faces a second degree murder charge in the Jan. 13, 2014 shooting at Cobb Grove Cinema 16 in Wesley Chapel. Reeves asked Oulson to stop texting during previews at a screening of Lonely survivor. The two quarreled.
Reeves told MPs he believed Oulson, 43, hit him in the face with something. He was worried that the young man would attack him, so he drew his gun and shot him in the chest. Nicole Oulson told detectives Reeves was belligerent and rude and that her husband was calm all the time.
Why the case took so long to go to trial depends on who you ask the question. Grimaldi and Bartlett have said they believe Escobar is delaying the case to keep Reeves on bail for as long as possible.
“My client cannot spend time with her husband and my client’s child cannot spend time with her father,” said Grimaldi. “All the while this man is at home and can spend time with his wife and loved ones. “
Escobar repeatedly stressed the complexity of the case and numerous witnesses. He has a 12 by 12 room filled with 6 inch binders to illustrate his point.
“People are spending far too much time trying a case,” Escobar said. “My goal is to get it right because obviously if Mr. Reeves goes to jail it will be a death sentence for him. He is old.
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It is not uncommon for a murder case to take years to come to trial. Higher stakes require more preparation. That means face-to-face depositions and layers of expert witnesses on both sides, and then aligning each other’s schedules, Clearwater defense attorney Jay Hebert said.
“But I would clearly say that 2014 is a long time to look forward,” Hebert said.
Another factor that can play a role in a long case: A murder case is less likely to end in a plea deal, Hebert said. There are fewer options that would be acceptable to both parties, especially for an accused as old as Reeves. Second degree murder carries a sentence of up to life in prison, but even an offer of 20 or 30 years is a life sentence for someone close to 80.
Then there’s Florida’s self-defense law, which a defendant can invoke before the case even goes to trial. A judge has dismissed Reeves’ request for immunity under the controversial law. He appealed. Next, lawmakers changed the law, shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors. This raised the question of whether Reeves would get another chance, eliciting a “Lord have mercy,” from the then judge. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that cases where hearings had already taken place did not need to be repeated.
Throw a pandemic into the mix, and the complexity multiplies, Pinellas defense attorney Roger Futerman said. The coronavirus halted jury trials for months and forced further proceedings on Zoom. The legal system has started to move again but is dealing with a backlog.
The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now looming, which has already blocked at least one court system. Miami-Dade has suspended criminal jury trials until December 31. No court in the Tampa Bay area had taken such action as of Tuesday.
If part of the eight-year period was intentional on Escobar’s part, Futerman didn’t know, he said. But the delays benefit Reeves, he said.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt your case when it comes to an elderly defendant and not in custody,” he said. If he is convicted, “he must stay outside for a long time and enjoy a certain freedom”.