FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida teenager accused of orchestrating an attack that left his classmate in flames was convicted Tuesday of aggravated battery after jurors decided against more serious charges.
Matthew "Zeke" Bent faced a charge of attempted second-degree murder after prosecutors say he offered friends money in 2009 to harm Michael Brewer, who was doused in rubbing alcohol and set on fire. The six jurors, who deliberated for just over a day, had the option of finding him guilty of a lesser offense.
Brewer suffered severe burns over 65 percent of his body but survived after leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool.
The Brewer family had been in court for much of the trial, but wasn't present Tuesday.
"The Brewers respect the jury's decision. Now it's time for Michael to get on with his life. ...And today he has closure," said their attorney, Jeanne Brady.
Prosecutors echoed Brady.
"Michael Brewer spent the last three years healing from his physical wounds. And now he's moving on with his emotional wounds," said Kal Le Var Evans, an assistant state attorney.
A defense attorney said the three years that Bent has been in jail awaiting trial was already a hefty penalty.
"He thought that three years for his involvement was quite substantial," said defense attorney Perry Thurston, Jr. "He's disappointed."
Bent and two other teens were charged with attempted second-degree murder, which carries a prison sentence of as many as 30 years. Denver "D.C." Jarvis, 17, and 18-year-old Jesus Mendez pleaded no contest earlier and were sentenced to eight and 11 years behind bars, respectively.
Bent faces a maximum term of 15 years at his sentencing hearing on July 23. His lawyers said they plan to file an appeal.
Bent initially intended to plead no contest as well, but backed out at the last minute and opted for trial. His attorneys insisted he was not the instigator of the attack and never intended to hurt Brewer.
Prosecutors had urged jurors not to let Bent sidestep guilt because he had others carry out the attack.
"Don't let him get away with letting other people do his dirty work for him," Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider said of the defendant during closing arguments Monday. "Matthew Bent was the reason why this crime happened. He was offering people money to beat Michael, not to scare Michael."
Defense attorney Johnny McCray said the state was overreaching with its prosecution of Bent.
"An innocent child doesn't have to be convicted to bring justice to Michael Brewer," McCray told the jury that began deliberations Monday afternoon.
The defense did not call a single witness, and Bent did not testify.
Brewer testified that he stayed home from school the day of the attack because he was afraid of Bent. The two had gotten into a dispute over a marijuana pipe that Bent was trying to force Brewer to buy, Brewer testified. Bent then allegedly tried to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father, which led to Bent's arrest.
"I was afraid," Brewer testified. "I thought something was going to happen to me."
After school on the day of the attack, Brewer decided to visit a friend at a nearby apartment complex. On the way he encountered a group of boys including Bent, Jarvis and Mendez.
The boys had found a jug of rubbing alcohol by chance on a low wall alongside the complex, and Jarvis testified that Bent offered him $5 or $10 to pour it on Brewer. Other boys said Bent offered the group $5 each to punch Brewer.
Jarvis did douse Brewer and Mendez, then flicked a lighter he was holding, sparking the blaze. In a statement to police, Mendez said he never expected the liquid to ignite so explosively.
Brewer spent months in the hospital, undergoing seven skin graft operations, followed by months more of rehabilitation and physical therapy. He testified that he still feels pain in his back and legs but said he remembers little after diving into the pool.
"I started getting really cold, and then I started seeing blur," Brewer said.