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Cop Who Killed Movie-Goer for Throwing Popcorn at Him Acquitted

Eight years later, a cop who shot an unarmed person in a movie theater has been given a free pass.

Daniel Werst

March 24, 2022
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Former Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves gives testimony during his second-degree murder trial on Thursday, Feb. 24, in Dade City, Florida. (Photo: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

On February 25, retired Florida police captain Curtis Reeves was acquitted of shooting Chad Oulson dead in a movie theater after Oulson argued with him and threw popcorn in his face. Reeves, then 71, and Oulson, 43, had gone to an early afternoon movie in a suburb of Tampa in January 2014 with their wives. During the previews, Oulson, a manager at a motorcycle dealership, took out his cellphone. He was reportedly texting a childcare worker to check on his two-year-old daughter.

Reeves, a former Tampa Police Department SWAT commander, took offense. He was in the last row of seats in the mostly empty theater, the Oulsons were in the next row, and witness Charles Cummings was in the row in front of them. Cummings reported that Reeves kicked the back of Oulson’s chair in irritation.

Reeves demanded Oulson put his phone away and, when he did not comply, went to complain to the management. He then returned to his seat. According to Olson’s wife, Reeves made a snide comment. The two men began arguing again, and Oulson then stood up and grabbed Reeves’s bag of popcorn and threw it in his face. A blurry security camera segment recorded these moments, but with Oulson partially out of the frame. One second later, the ex-cop drew a .38 caliber handgun and fatally shot Oulson in the chest. The bullet partially severed one of Nicole Oulson’s fingers — she had placed her hand on her husband’s chest, urging him not to fight with Reeves. Reeves had ignored a notice on the door of the movie theater saying “No weapons” permitted inside.

Shockingly, the state took eight years to put Reeves on trial for second degree murder. He attempted to get a judge to dismiss the case based on Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law in 2017, but was unsuccessful.

Reeves’s lawyer, Richard Escobar, argued the killing was in self-defense even though the victim was unarmed. Florida conducts all criminal trials with a six- rather than twelve-person jury except in first degree murder cases. This self-defense claim was successful.

On the stand, Reeves claimed that before he fired, Oulson had displayed extraordinary “uncontrolled anger or rage and all of the perceptors that you could imagine, whether it’s verbal, physical, expression.” After the shooting, Reeves had vaguely told police that the man he killed had been “hollering” and, “whatever he was saying was threatening.”

The defense claimed that Oulson threw his cell phone at Reeves and hit him in the face, although this cannot be seen in the video. Oulson’s wife, who was seated next to him, told police she did not see him get hit, and he had no injuries.

Reeves insisted at trial that, “He was gettin’ ready to punch me, and I perceived that, at some point, and, that’s when the pistol came out.” Escobar claimed to the press that Oulson could have killed his client with “one punch.” 

In Escobar’s closing argument, he said that because Reeves was a cop for over 30 years he had “more knowledge, more experience, more study … than anyone in this courtroom” about when one is forced to use violence in self-defense and that jurors should trust his judgment.

News of this trial and acquittal sparked disgust and mockery on social media. Many focused on the absurdity of sanctioning killing a person for “assault” with popcorn. What this trial, eight years late, actually shows is how courts give the words of cops more weight than actual evidence. Police evidence gathering, jury selection, and formal control of which witnesses are allowed to testify about what are employed to prop up fictional “self-defense” stories after police murder people. The capitalist court system goes as far as it dares not to abandon its own armed agents to be “treated like everyone else” — one of the many reasons we have to abolish that system.

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Daniel Werst

Daniel is a teacher, former carpenter, and long-term socialist living in Indianapolis.

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