Why did retired police officer get acquitted of murder?

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Earlier today, I wrote about the AP’s response to Stand Your Ground laws. I argued there that for those laws to not result in a murder conviction, a reasonable person must find that there was a threat to someone’s life.

Yet a retired police officer was recently acquitted of homicide after shooting someone in a movie theater, a case that sure looked like it would be a slam-dunk conviction.

Florida jury acquitted retired Florida police captain Curtis Reeves in the shooting death of a man in a movie theater eight years ago.

Reeves was accused of second-degree murder and aggravated battery in the 2014 killing of 43-year-old Chad Oulson, who was on a movie date with his wife.

Reeves pleaded not guilty and claimed self-defense, previously telling authorities he feared he would be attacked after he and Oulson got into an argument. The argument started after Oulson sent a text message to his young daughter’s babysitter during previews and Reeves told him to put his phone away, authorities previously said.

Oulson’s wife was injured in the shooting but survived.

Jurors began deliberating Friday evening, following a nine-day trial, which Oulson’s widow had hoped would end in guilty verdicts.

“Nobody is ever above the law,” state prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser said during his closing arguments. “(Reeves) killed another human being in a crowded movie theater next to his wife for no reason.”

So how did Reeves manage to be acquitted?

Well, that’s because while some think that Stand Your Ground presents universal constants, the idea of what is a threat and what isn’t can be rather personal. So, the defense presented it as such.

Defense attorney Richard Escobar urged jurors to put themselves in Reeves’ shoes at the time of the incident — he was 71 years old then — and the perceived threat he believed existed, calling Reeves a “decorated law enforcement officer who had countless hours of training in the use of force, in the assessment of danger, and the risks that take place when we are faced with a dangerous encounter.”

In other words, you have a 71-year-old man faced off with someone half his age.

It wasn’t just a verbal argument, either. Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, which while not particularly dangerous, did suggest that Oulson was well beyond the point of the altercation being just about words.

Did the jury reach the right verdict?

Honestly, I don’t know. I do know that a 71-year-old man is in much more danger from a purely physical altercation than a 35-year-old man would be. While Reeves might have been killed from a single punch, you or I might not have, thus changing the calculus a fair amount.

What can we learn from this one?

I wouldn’t suggest trying to learn much. For many of us, we’d be unlikely to walk away after a shooting like this. This was a decorated law enforcement officer whose training likely bought him some goodwill with the jury. Unless you are also a retired and decorated police officer, I doubt you’d get the same benefit of the doubt.

However, if you’re an elderly person and a much younger man is getting that degree of aggression, I can certainly understand you being afraid for your life.