An aphorism as old as jurisprudence itself is enduring a strain in the courtroom of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle. You know the one: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Last week, Barthle set a February hearing for the linchpin of the infamous movie house shooting case, in which only one relevant fact is not in dispute: Retired Tampa police captain Curtis Reeves Jr., used his .380 semiautomatic pocket pistol to kill Chad Oulson, forever 43.
The rest — whether it was about texting or bullying or stubbornness or testosterone or a cop’s mindset or etiquette or management failures or some blend of it all — is window dressing, stuff for gossips, speculators and storytellers.
Not that all that and more won’t become relevant at next February’s hearing, when Barthle will hear arguments regarding Reeves’ stand-your-ground claim. Then, at last, context will be everything. Then, at last, we’ll have it out.
Let’s be clear. The delay/deny business playing out here isn’t on Barthle. She’s the second judge on the case. Pat Siracusa recused himself last July after he became openly frustrated with both sets of lawyers’ delays, about the only area in which the prosecution and defense have been cooperative.
Assuming this date holds, the February hearing will unfold more than three years — roughly 1,100 days — after the bizarre episode inside auditorium No. 10 at the Cobb Grove 16 cineplex in Wesley Chapel.
At last, finally, the timeline will matter.
The Reeves and the Oulsons, married couples who’d never before laid eyes on each other, arriving minutes apart for the day’s first showing of “Lone Survivor.” The ensuing dispute over Chad texting during the pre-show entertainment. Curtis retreating to the lobby to ask the management to intervene.
Arguably, the entire texting chapter of our tragedy ended right there. This is not to say both couples could not have saved themselves endless heartache if, at this point, one or the other had found new seats. But that’s not what happened, and arguments can’t be hung from nonexistent pegs.
So the timeline resumes. Chad rising to confront Curtis when he returned, berating him for tattling, bouncing a box of popcorn off him, followed by a glinting object, claimed by the defense to be Oulson’s mobile phone. Curtis going into his pocket and coming out with the pistol, leaning forward and squeezing the trigger. Flash. Bang.
Curtis slumping back into his seat. Someone hearing Chad murmur, “I can’t believe I got shot” as a crimson floret bloomed on his shirt.
Now, everything depends on February, when Reeves’ attorneys will press Barthle to apply Florida’s stand-your-ground law, the statute that allows the use of deadly force when (a) a person is somewhere he has a right to be and (b) he reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Before stand-your-ground was enacted in 2005, people caught in similar circumstances had a legal obligation to retreat. In recordings taken after the shooting, Reeves concedes he wished he’d done exactly that.
Arguably, though, by the time Chad, having chosen to escalate a silly dispute, loomed in, the old cop’s avenues of retreat had vanished. Maybe, after all, Reeves acted reasonably.
What this isn’t, by any stretch, is an easy call. One man is dead. Another could spend the rest of his life in prison. And however it tilts, the outcome is sure to be imperfect. The survivors always will bear their scars.
Which brings us back to delays and denials.
Two-and-a-half years later, in the summer of 2016, everything remains mired in legal limbo, and will remain so until Judge Barthle decides whether the state can proceed. If she grants Reeves’ stand-your-ground motion, there will be no prosecution for second-degree murder. He will be immune from civil suits.
Until then, Reeves lives in the shadows of freedom, out on bail but restricted in his movements, his fate bound up in legal gymnastics.
And Nicole Oulson, Chad’s bereaved widow, one of two absolute innocents in all of this — we mustn’t forget now 3-year-old Lexi, the subject of Chad’s fateful texts — must muster on with her feet planted in two worlds: One where life moves on and Chad is forever absent, and the other, frozen in legal amber, where there’s always the darkness and Chad, and the roaring gun.
Published July 6, 2016