That Wasn’t Supposed to Happen—Surprises in the Courtroom

By John G. Browning


Over the course of 30 years of trying cases, I’ve seen my share of unusual moments in the courtroom. But even my experiences pale by comparison to some of the wilder courtroom moments we’ve all seen in viral videos. Many of them involve courtroom outbursts, political protests, attempted acts of vengeance by victims or their family members against criminal defendants, and even the occasional defendant assaulting his own lawyer. There’s so many of these kind of incidents, in fact, that A&E has debuted an eight-episode series, Court Cam, which purports to showcase “wild, unruly and outrageous courtroom moments,” from “frightening outbursts to furious judges.”

During a 2014 hearing, Brevard County (Florida) Judge John C. Murphy got into an argument with public defender Andrew Weinstock over Weinstock’s refusal to waive his client’s right to a speedy trial. The heated discussion escalated to the point where Murphy told Weinstock, “If you wanna fight, let’s just go out back . . .” The two men stepped into the hallway from which courtroom observers could hear shouting and the sound of a scuffle. The judge returned to the bench but later took a leave of absence and underwent anger management treatment. The Florida Supreme Court, not appreciating one of the state’s courtrooms becoming a scene out of WWE SmackDown, decided that Murphy needed a lot more time off. In December 2015, the court removed him from office for his “appalling behavior.”

There have been plenty of other surprising moments in the courtroom, including defendants dropping bags of drugs and lawyers showing up under the influence. But few incidents attracted as much international attention as the “lawyer, lawyer, pants on fire” incident of 2017. Attorney Stephen Gutierrez was making closing arguments during his client’s arson trial when his pants began to smolder. Gutierrez rushed from the courtroom to douse the fire in a nearby bathroom. Gutierrez claimed at the time that a battery used to charge e-cigarettes broke in his pocket, and he denied that it was a stunt. But prosecutors weren’t convinced and felt the young lawyer had ignited the battery to demonstrate that “spontaneous” combustion was possible. Gutierrez later filed an amended lawsuit against GEICO claiming his client’s car fire, which had already been ruled an arson, was the result of a collision. The Florida Bar disciplinary authorities were not amused. In late October 2019, Gutierrez was ordered to show cause why he shouldn’t be suspended for a year (followed by two on probation).

Of course, thanks to Gutierrez, the phrase “on fire in the courtroom” has taken on a completely different meaning.TBJ


is a Dallas attorney who handles commercial litigation, employment, health care, and personal injury defense matters in state and federal courts. He is an award-winning legal journalist for his syndicated column, “Legally Speaking,” and is the author of the Social Media and Litigation Practice Guide and a forthcoming casebook on social media and the law. Browning is an adjunct professor at SMU Dedman School of Law.

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