I’ve seen some strange things in the courtroom, and I’ve occasionally listened to an adversary’s closing argument and thought how appropriate it would be for him to be struck by lightning or for his pants to catch on fire. But I never thought it would actually happen. Too bad I wasn’t in a courtroom in Miami in March watching 28-year-old lawyer Stephen Gutierrez make his closing argument when his pants suddenly caught fire.
Ironically, Gutierrez was defending a client, Claudy Charles, in an arson case (Charles was accused of intentionally torching his car), and he had earlier tried to argue spontaneous combustion as a defense. Early in his closing, Gutierrez noticed that his pocket felt hot (he had several small e-cigarette batteries in his pocket at the time), and with the heat intensifying he ran from the courtroom straight to the men’s room. After tossing the battery in water, Gutierrez returned to the courtroom with singed pants but unharmed. The lawyer, a 2015 graduate of Florida International University Law School, insists that it wasn’t a courtroom demonstration or a stunt gone awry. “This was not staged,” he said. “No one thinks that a battery left in their pocket is somehow going to explode.” Nevertheless, court deputies seized the e-cigarette batteries as evidence, and the episode is under investigation. If nothing else, Gutierrez “lawyer, lawyer, pants on fire” incident made national news and turned him into a walking, talking (and possibly still smoking) lawyer joke. And the next time some courtroom observer watching your closing argument says ,“You’re on fire,” before you take it as a compliment make sure he doesn’t mean it literally.
Of course, strange things can happen during closing arguments. In November 2009, Hutchinson, Kansas, lawyer Sam Kepfield was defending a client, Anastasia Daily, on charges of forgery and theft. Daily’s defense was that a co-defendant had threatened her daughter and dog if she didn’t participate in the illegal activity, and attorney Kepfield wanted to convey to the jury the concept of acting under the imminent threat of bodily harm. Unfortunately, the way he chose to demonstrate this was to put a hand grenade on a courtroom table during his closing argument before pulling the pin out, asking the jury “Are you afraid now?” Of course, the grenade was a dud, but the judge and prosecutor were not amused. More importantly, the dramatic stunt didn’t impress the jury, which took all of 15 minutes to find Daily guilty. Apparently, the grenade wasn’t the only thing that was a dud.
Sometimes, grand gestures succeed. On March 3, 2017, University of Central Arkansas student Blayk Puckett was pulled over by police on suspicion of drunk driving (he was driving under the speed limit). Insisting to the officers that he was not under the influence, Puckett offered to prove it through a field sobriety test of his own: juggling. The student, who does magic tricks and juggling as a hobby (the “JUGGLR” vanity plates should’ve tipped off the cops) then proceeded to demonstrate his juggling prowess. The bemused officers recorded it all on a cellphone camera, and the footage soon went viral. Now Puckett is juggling school and internet fame.
Occasionally, judges like to get in on the act and liven up their opinions by borrowing from pop culture. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is one example, channeling their inner blues man in a recent opinion, High Point LLP v. National Park Service. The case involved a dispute by private property owners against the National Park Service over the Service’s refusal to allow changes to a dock located on Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, in order to protect the island’s wilderness character. The Court quoted a classic Otis Redding song, saying that “Although Otis Redding may have enjoyed wasting time by watching ships roll into the Dock of the Bay, if he were sitting on Cumberland Island’s Brick-Kiln Dock, he truly would be wasting his time, waiting in vain for ships that would never come.” Holding in favor of the Park Service, the Court also included a lengthy footnote giving the background history of the song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” before quoting Redding once again, as it reminded the property owners that “nothin’s gonna change.”
So when it comes to legal matters, you can juggle multiple tasks or you can sing the blues. But while courtrooms can be a place for fiery rhetoric and bombshell revelations, it’s usually best to leave the real pyrotechnics at home.
John G. Browning is a shareholder at Passman & Jones in Dallas, Texas, who has over 26 years of experience in trying cases. His experience encompasses a broad range of civil litigation, including personal injury, product liability, premises liability, professional liability, commercial litigation, employment and trade secrets cases, media law, and intellectual property litigation. Mr. Browning is also an award-winning legal writer and the author of the books "The Lawyer’s Guide to Social Networking: Understanding Social Media’s Impact on the Law" and “Social Media Litigation Practice Guide." He is a Charter Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America.