Pants-on-fire defense attorney withdraws from arson case – at the client’s request

1 Fort Lauderdale

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The Miami defense attorney whose pants caught fire as he delivered the closing argument in an arson trial this month is off the case after the defendant asked the judge for a new lawyer on Friday at a hearing in Miami-Dade criminal court.

“I want another lawyer,” defendant Claudy Charles said in Haitian Creole through a translator when asked by Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman. The judge had earlier this week suggested that Charles might consider a new attorney.

Lawyer Stephen Gutierrez agreed, saying he no longer wanted to be a distraction in the case. The case grabbed international attention after the incident.

“I agreed with you in the principle, I guess, of not being a sideshow,” he said.

Hanzman appointed a public defender to represent Charles, 48, who said he has not drawn a paycheck from his job at Playa Largo Resort since being jailed earlier this month on arson charges.

Gutierrez has insisted that the fire that ignited in his pants pocket was not a stunt to persuade jurors of Charles’ innocence but a freak accident caused by an electronic cigarette battery. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is investigating the incident, and has until mid-May to conclude its probe.

Witnesses at the trial told the Miami Herald that Gutierrez’s defense hung on a claim that Charles’s car had spontaneously combusted and was not intentionally set ablaze to collect on insurance. The lawyer had been fidgeting with his pants pocket as he began the closing argument, when smoke suddenly started to rise from his right pocket.

Gutierrez rushed out of the courtroom and into the bathroom, where he doused his pockets with water. Hanzman allowed the lawyer to wrap up his closing argument with a singed pocket. Jurors convicted Charles of second-degree arson anyway.

Charles asked for a new trial, but on Friday prosecutors offered him a plea deal: 18 months in prison if he accepts the guilty verdict and drops his request.

If Charles pursues a new trial, though, then prosecutors said they would add two additional charges that had been dropped in the prior proceeding, including an allegation of insurance fraud. He could face five years in prison if convicted for arson, and an additional 3 1/2 years if the jury finds him guilty of the additional charges.

Hanzman gave Charles until May 5 to consider whether he wants to take the plea deal or pursue a new trial.

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