A Miami defense lawyer’s pants burst into flames Wednesday afternoon as he began his closing arguments in front of a jury—in an arson case.
Stephen Gutierrez, who was arguing that his client’s car spontaneously combusted and was not intentionally set on fire, had been fiddling in his pocket as he was about to address jurors when smoke began billowing out [of] his right pocket, witnesses told the Miami Herald.
He then rushed out of the courtroom. When he returned a few minutes later—extinguished and “unharmed, with a singed pocket”—he told the judge that the problem was a bad battery in an e-cigarette. If he explained why he had an e-cigarette in his pants during closing argument, or why he had been “fiddling” with (I assume) that e-cigarette at the time, the Herald didn’t report it.
It does say he “insisted it wasn’t a staged defense demonstration gone wrong,” suggesting, of course, that the judge wondered whether the sudden outbreak of a fire during closing argument in an arson case where the defense was based on spontaneous combustion had been entirely coincidental.
We don’t care, because it’s remarkable either way: either (1) it was an astounding coincidence in which a lawyer’s pants actually caught on fire during an argument, or (2) a lawyer planned to set something on fire in the courtroom, on purpose, as a demonstration in support of a spontaneous-combustion theory. I’m not sure I even want to know the truth.
But the truth will probably come out, because police are looking into the matter and seized “several frayed e-cigarette batteries” as evidence. That doesn’t sound good for Mr. Gutierrez, who might face a contempt-of-court charge if this turns out to be shenanigans. Such a charge seems unlikely to me unless he floated the idea of a demonstration beforehand and was told not to try it, which is possible. Personally, I’d say he’s suffered enough anyway. The incident didn’t do his client any good—deliberations went forward and the jury convicted him of second-degree arson. So his client may not be happy with him, plus now he needs a new pair of pants, and he’s in the news. Seems like enough to me.
In 2009, a Kansas lawyer pulled the pin on a hand grenade during his closing argument, apparently for a somewhat similar purpose. It was a dud (and so was the grenade). That was also a bad idea, but at least it didn’t involve any chance that the lawyer’s pants might actually catch on fire during an argument, which is sufficiently remarkable that I felt the need to italicize it again.
You need to be careful with courtroom demonstrations anyway, because they can easily backfire. Demonstrations that involve (a) your pants or (b) fire seem like especially bad ideas, even separately.
UPDATE: In an email to the Miami New Times on Thursday, Gutierrez provided some further details in re: the accidental nature of the pants fire:
Shortly after beginning my argument, I noticed that my pocket began to feel hot. When I checked my pocket, I noticed that the heat was coming from a small e-cigarette battery I had in my pocket. I noticed the heat was intensifying and left the courtroom as quickly as possible – straight into the bathroom. I was able to toss the battery in water after it singed my pocket open.
Gutierrez insisted again that the incident was not staged, saying “[n]o one thinks that a battery left in their pocket is somehow going to ‘explode.'” As the New Times pointed out, people have reported being burned by malfunctioning e-cigarette batteries, but “[n]ot one of those people … was arguing about spontaneous combustion to a jury in an arson case when the malfunction happened.” Not until now, that is.
In his statement, Gutierrez not too surprisingly tried to shift the focus to the alleged dangers of e-cigarette accessories, like for example the battery he happened to have in his pants pocket during closing argument in an arson case. He, of course, had no idea there was a risk it might spontaneously combust while he was explaining the defense’s theory of the case (spontaneous combustion), but that was then.
“After careful research,” he said, “I now know this can happen.” This must refer to something other than the field test he conducted in front of the jury, but he did not elaborate.
FURTHER UPDATE: On March 17, the Herald reported that Gutierrez’s client had fired him, as the judge suggested he should, and that a public defender would be appointed instead. Or, depending on who you ask, Gutierrez agreed to withdraw from the case so that the “sideshow” his fiery pants had created would not prejudice his client if there were a new trial. But in May, the client took a deal in which he would accept the guilty verdict in exchange for a moderate sentence of 364 days in jail followed by five years of probation. At the time, Gutierrez was also still “under law-enforcement scrutiny” as prosecutors considered whether to charge him with something that I can only assume would have been attempted pants arson. They were supposed to conclude that investigation by mid-May, but there is no report of any charges being brought.
I suppose he has probably suffered enough.