Miami lawyer's pants start smoking during trial

Stephen Gutierrez fiddling in pockets when pants caught fire in arson case

By Associated Press, Liane Morejon - Reporter, Amanda Batchelor - Senior Digital Editor

MIAMI - A Miami defense attorney is feeling the heat after his pants started smoking as he delivered closing arguments in an arson case.

Witnesses told the Miami Herald that Stephen Gutierrez, 28, was fiddling in his pocket Wednesday while addressing jurors when smoke started billowing from his pants. At the time, he was arguing that his client's car spontaneously combusted and wasn't intentionally set on fire.

"Shortly after beginning my argument, I noticed that my pocket began to feel hot," Gutierrez told Local 10 News in an email. "When I checked my pocket, I noticed that the heat was coming from a small e-cigarette battery I had in my pocket. There were two or three in my pocket at the time. 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 quickly left the courtroom. Jurors also were escorted out.

"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 said.

When Gutierrez returned unharmed, he insisted it wasn't a staged defense gone wrong.

"This was not staged," Gutierrez wrote. "No one thinks that a battery left in their pocket is somehow going to explode."

The judge didn't seem too convinced and grilled Gutierrez in front of the prosecution.

"It seems to me very coincidental that in a case involving arson, where you're trying to persuade a jury that there was some kind of instantaneous combustion in a vehicle, that you stand up to do your closing argument and all of a sudden some battery in your pocket becomes flammable," Judge Michael Hanzman said.

Gutierrez tried hard to convince the judge that the incident was just a bizarre coincidence.

"I didn't do it as a stunt, judge," he said. "I swear on my life."

Miami-Dade police and prosecutors are investigating the incident. Investigators seized frayed e-cigarette batteries as evidence.

Hanzman could decide to hold Gutierrez in contempt of court, which the state requested.

Gutierrez told Local 10 News that the dangers of e-cigarettes have caused him to quit using the products.

"After careful research, I now know this can happen," he said. "I am not the only one this has happened to, but I am in a position to shed light on the situation. E-cigarette accessories can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing regulation in the industry is much-needed. However, much more is needed."

Gutierrez represented Claudy Charles. The 48-year-old was eventually convicted of second-degree arson.

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