Miami Attorney Swears He Didn't Purposely Set His Pants on Fire During Arson Trial

Imagine every conceivable moment when your pants might spontaneously burst into flames. Got them all? OK, now which one would be the single most absurd?

Here's a good one: You're standing in front of a jury, arguing that your client didn't purposely set his car on fire — because it spontaneously combusted. Oops, just like your pants!

Well, that is exactly what went down inside a Miami courtroom yesterday. As defense attorney Stephen Gutierrez was addressing a jury in an arson case, arguing that his client didn't actually set his car ablaze, smoke began billowing from his pants pocket, and Gutierrez suddenly ran from the room.

Spectators were stunned. “It was surreal,” one told the Miami Herald's David Ovalle, who broke the bizarre tale. The judge was immediately suspicious and hinted to the Herald he could hold Gutierrez in contempt.

But today the attorney insists his pantalones de fuego were not intentionally planned. The culprit: a faulty e-cigarette that just happened to burst into flames at the worst — or, alternately, best — possible moment.

"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," Gutierrez says in an email to New Times. "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 says he was as shocked as anyone by the accident.

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

In fact, exploding e-cigs have been a documented problem. Dozens of cases have been reported of people seriously burned by malfunctioning batteries.

Not one of those people, though, was arguing about spontaneous combustion to a jury in an arson case when the malfunction happened.

"After careful research, I now know this can happen. I am not the only one this has happened to, but I am in a position to shed light on the situation," Gutierrez says. "E-cigarette accessories can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing regulation in the industry is much-needed. However, much more is needed. The dangers of these devices, and accessories, have led me to quit using e-cigarette products. "

That's probably for the best.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink