By now you’ve all heard about the shooting in a Tampa area movie theater. 71 year-old Curtis Reeves, a retired Tampa Police Officer, got into an argument with a younger man who was allegedly texting during the movie previews. The younger man reportedly threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, who responded by withdrawing his concealed firearm and shooting both the younger man and the younger man’s wife. The younger man died and Reeves has been charged with second-degree murder.
The media is trying to make comparisons between the Reeves case and the George Zimmerman case. As you know, Zimmerman was acquitted back in July 2013, in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. At trial, Zimmerman’s defense team argued that he had shot 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense. That Martin had attacked Zimmerman without provocation and that Zimmerman reasonably feared that Martin would seriously injure or kill him. With a lack of an eyewitness or any concrete evidence indicating who the aggressor was in their confrontation, the jury had no choice but to find Zimmerman not guilty.
The Reeves matter is different. First and foremost, Reeves shot and killed the alleged victim in a movie theater. There are eyewitnesses to the incident.
Also, the act of aggression on the part of the alleged victim included throwing a bag of popcorn at Reeves. Under no circumstances is that act, by itself, sufficient to warrant the use of deadly force.
Reeves, through his defense attorney, has stated that he felt threatened and fired his gun because he believed that the alleged victim intended to harm him. This defense can only work if the factual circumstances support it. In Zimmerman’s case, there was no evidence to refute the defense’s claim. Since the state always carries the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in any criminal prosecution, the jury could not find Zimmerman not guilty for conduct not proven.
Remember - the law in Florida allows a person to use deadly force if they reasonably believe such force is necessary to save their own life or limb.
In the Reeves case, the jury and possibly the judge (if the defense files a Stand Your Ground motion) will be asked to determine whether the act of throwing a bag of popcorn at a reasonable person would justify the use of deadly force. I think anybody would answer no to that question.
The facts are just starting to come out but many details are still unknown or at the very least, unreported. Before we jump to conclusions we must know the distance between Reeves and the alleged victim, the body language of the alleged victim, whether the alleged victim was reaching for something or had otherwise concealed his hand. All of these details may be factors in assessing whether Reeves made a reasonable choice. If the alleged victim had only thrown popcorn at him, then no jury or judge is going to absolve Reeves of guilt.
If - and only if - other facts demonstrate that Reeves was in imminent danger of becoming a victim of serious violence, then there is a chance that he could be immune from prosecution under Stand Your Ground, or acquitted by a jury based on Florida’s justifiable use of deadly force jury instruction.
However, as the facts have been reported as of now, I do not see Reeves being acquitted or declared immune from prosecution. I believe the murder charge is just under the circumstances and that he will be rightfully convicted.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Miami-Dade and Broward.