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Retired officer acquitted in US theater shooting

A Florida grand jury acquitted a retired SWAT officer on Friday of murder for fatally shooting a moviegoer during an argument over cell phone use.

Debates in the trial began on Friday, and the six-person jury returned its verdict that night, news agencies reported.

Retired Tampa police captain Curtis Reeves, now 79, has been charged with second-degree murder for killing Chad Oulson during a melee at a suburban movie theater on January 13, 2014.

In closing arguments, defense attorney Richard Escobar said that Oulson, 43, gave Reeves, then 71, reason to believe his life was in danger by turning around, screaming and giving hand towards him. He said Reeves made the decision to shoot him based on nearly 30 years of law enforcement and hours of training in the proper use of deadly force. According to Escobar, Reeves did not need to wait until he was hit before defending himself.

Reeves “has more knowledge, experience, research in that field than anyone else in this courtroom,” Escobar said. “It’s a dangerous world.”

But prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser countered that Reeves killed Oulson because he threw popcorn in his face, angering him because it violated his self-image as an “alpha male”.

“He wasn’t afraid of anything,” Rosenwasser said.

No one disputes most of the basic facts. Reeves and Oulson did not know each other. They had gone with his wife to a matinee showing the movie “Lone Survivor” during the Afghanistan War, with Reeves in the back row, the Oulsons in a row ahead of them, slightly to the right.

When the preview started, and despite the cell phone shutdown message, Oulson continued to text her 22-month-old daughter’s caregiver. Reeves leaned over and told him to stop – Reeves said politely, Oulson’s widow and the others said it like an order. After being flatly rejected by Oulson, perhaps with profanity, Reeves went to complain to the manager. When Reeves returned to find Oulson had put the phone away, he told Oulson that if he hadn’t told the manager if he knew he would have complied.

What happened over the next few seconds was where the stories varied until Oulson grabbed Reeves’ popcorn and threw it back in Reeves’ face. Reeves pulled out his .380 pistol, lunged forward and fired one shot, killing Oulson and nearly severing the finger of Nicole, Oulson’s wife, who reached out to pull her husband back to his seat.

Escobar said the evidence to back up their point was that in the seconds of contention, Oulson, before being shot, threw a phone at Reeves, hit him right in the face, and then appeared willing to climb over a chair and attack, reaching towards him.

On Thursday, Reeves testified that in his entire law enforcement career he had never encountered someone so out of control and he feared he was about to be killed. Given his age, arthritis and other physical ailments, Reeves thinks he can’t protect himself except by shooting.

Escobar says it takes less than three-quarters of a second from popcorn tossing to firing. It was too quick to be the reason for Reeves’ layoff, he said.

“Impossible,” Escobar said.

But Rosenwasser argued that Reeves’ story was a lie. According to the prosecutor, the security video did not show Oulson throwing his cell phone and Reeves was not injured in the face. But the video shows Oulson grabbing Reeves’ bag of popcorn, throwing it at him, and Reeves opening fire. Witnesses testified that they heard Reeves then mutter, “throw popcorn at me.”

He said Reeves’ stories of fear for his life, that he was a “fragile egg” despite having just returned from a hunting trip and Oulson’s loss of control were all fabrications. Rosenwasser says they aim to cover up the fact that Reeves has an “alpha male mindset” who enjoys the euphoria of being a cop and SWAT commander. He killed Oulson in a fit of rage after he hurt his ego from being challenged and having popcorn thrown in his face, Rosenwasser said.

He said Reeves never opened fire as he moved through the robbery/murder office, fearing fugitives and SWATs, but somehow the argument at the movie theater about the phone escalated to the point Reeves faced the most out of control, scariest person he had ever faced and had to shoot.

Rosenwasser said: “In his entire career, that’s what he’s most afraid of? It’s completely not real.”

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