Was the defendant's mother scratching her scalp with her middle finger? Or was she making an obscene gesture at the judge?
The mother later told Pinellas-Pasco Judge Richard Luce, "I'm having an allergic reaction to my shampoo."
But a bailiff told Luce that the mother raised her middle finger in disrespect.
The dispute has resulted in a formal bar complaint and an unusual order banning defense attorney Maura Kiefer from Luce's courtroom.
Luce never saw the gesture at the end of the hearing May 21. But after learning about it, he called the parties back to court that day.
For five minutes, Luce recounted to defendant Tam Thane Vo the seriousness of the attempted murder case he faced and the possible life sentence.
"I know his mother is a little upset with the situation," Luce said in court.
Kiefer thought Luce, angered by the gesture, was making it clear he would impose a life sentence.
"That's vindictive sentencing," Kiefer said. She filed a motion seeking to have Luce disqualified from the case, citing his anger.
Luce denied being upset but disqualified himself anyway. He questioned Kiefer's integrity and ordered her to never appear before him again.
"How Ms. Kiefer could possibly misconstrue this court's comments in such an egregious manner is beyond comprehension," Luce wrote in an order.
He also reported Kiefer to the Florida Bar for possible disciplinary action, saying she exaggerated his anger to get him removed from the case.
Kiefer said she is being punished for protecting her client's rights. Luce declined to comment.
"If a lawyer can't go toe to toe against a judge without fear of retribution, then that's sad," she said.
An allegedly raised middle finger played a role in an August 1998 incident before Hillsborough County Judge Elvin Martinez. The judge claimed a defendant, Tony A. Cole, made the obscene gesture to a bailiff. The judge threatened to "knock the hell out of" Cole.
Cole denied raising his middle finger, and there was no mention of it in the court transcript.