Prosecutors will get more time to investigate the Miami lawyer whose pants burst into flames during an arson trial, while the judge suggested the man’s client may need to get a new attorney.
Lawyer Stephen Gutierrez, who blamed a faulty electronic cigarette battery, appeared in court Wednesday and again told the judge the spectacle was an accident during closing arguments — not a stunt for the jury that backfired.
“I think this is all being blown out of monumental proportions,” Gutierrez told reporters after the brief hearing on Wednesday.
The hearing came one week after Gutierrez’s pants caught fire in front of jurors and bewildered courtroom spectators, a story first reported by the Miami Herald. The case drew mocking headlines across the world, mostly variations of “Lawyer, lawyer, pants on fire.”
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Gutierrez represents Claudy Charles, who was accused of torching his own car for insurance money. The defense strategy: The car caught fire because of spontaneous combustion.
Just as Gutierrez began his closing arguments, witnesses reported that he was fiddling with his pocket when smoke began billowing from his right pants pocket. Gutierrez ran out of the courtroom to the bathroom to douse the flaming battery with water.
With a singed pocket, Gutierrez was eventually allowed to finish his arguments. Jurors convicted his client anyway.
Charles, who remains jailed, has yet to be sentenced.
With millions of users across the country, e-cigarettes deliver vaporized nicotine through a heated liquid solution. But questions about the health and fire risks of the products have mounted, with the U.S. Department of Transportation recently banning e-cigarettes from checked bags on airplanes.
That day, Miami-Dade police officers seized several frayed e-cigarette batteries from Gutierrez as evidence.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has now assigned two of its top prosecutors, Gail Levine and Christine Zahralban, to investigate what happened. Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman on Wednesday allowed them 60 days to conclude their investigation.
As he did on the day it happened, Hanzman again stressed skepticism that the fire was an accident.
“I find it highly improbable that during an arson trial, when your defense is spontaneous combustion, that all of a sudden within a minute of your closing argument, your pants start on fire,” Hanzman said Wednesday.
Still, Hanzman called the whole episode a “side show” and told Gutierrez that his client may want to change lawyers, to “see the case through a fresh set of eyes.”
Charles was not brought to court on Wednesday but will make a decision by Friday, when another hearing is to be held.