FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Matthew Bent never poured flammable rubbing alcohol on a middle-school classmate, and he didn't flick the lighter that set the teenager ablaze. No one disputes those facts. But a prosecutor insisted Tuesday that Bent orchestrated the attack, while a defense attorney said he played little or no role.
The conflicting claims came in the opening statements in the second-degree attempted murder trial of Bent, now 17 and known to friends as "Zeke." Bent faces as many as 30 years in prison if convicted in the October 2009 attack on Michael Brewer, who was then 15.
Defense attorney Perry Thurston Jr. said Bent was among a group of boys who confronted Brewer near Deerfield Beach Middle School, but that it was two others who took the actions that lit Brewer on fire.
"There was no plan. There was no plot. There was no sophisticated scheme," Thurston said. "Matthew Bent sits in this courtroom innocent of those charges."
Brewer, also now 17, has largely recovered from second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body. He survived by leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool.
Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider said Bent had a dispute with Brewer over the latter's refusal to be bullied into paying him for a $40 video game. Schneider said after the boys found rubbing alcohol and confronted Brewer, Bent offered to pay Denver Colorado "D.C." Jarvis $5 to pour its contents on Brewer.
"I'm going to ask you to hold Matthew Bent responsible for his actions," Schneider told the six-person jury.
Brewer is on the state's witness list, as are two other youths who previously pleaded no contest for their roles in the attack. Jarvis, who is 17 as well, said he poured the rubbing alcohol on Brewer, while 18-year-old Jesus "Junior" Mendez acknowledged flicking his lighter. Mendez was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Jarvis was sentenced to eight.
Jarvis is expected to testify that he acted on Bent's orders, Schneider said. But Thurston said Jarvis is testifying for the state in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
Another boy who was present, Calvin Kenny, testified that he heard Bent tell Jarvis to "pour it on him to mess with him." Later, he said he saw Bent make a motion with his hands just before Jarvis did pour the alcohol.
But under cross examination by defense attorney Johnny McCray, Kenny acknowledged that no suggestion was made to hurt Brewer — and certainly not to set him on fire.
Brewer spent five months in the hospital, undergoing seven painful skin graft surgeries, followed by lengthy physical rehabilitation. He has largely recovered physically, but his mother testified Tuesday that much of what happened that horrific day is still fresh in his mind and that he still requires regular physical therapy and massages.
"He's got scars on 65 percent of his body. He does have some limited mobility on one side," said Valerie Brewer, at times fighting through tears. "The night terrors that we still live through on a weekly basis. He wakes up screaming in the middle of the night that he's still on fire."
According to statements given to police, Bent wanted revenge because Brewer refused to buy the video game the day before the attack. After the rebuff, authorities say Bent tried to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father, got into a name-calling confrontation with the man. Bent, who is black, said the father used a racial epithet. Bent was later arrested, and his attempted burglary charge is still pending.
Brewer's family said he stayed home from school the next day to avoid further trouble with Bent.
"He was worried about the repercussions of what could happen to him from the previous day," said Brewer's father, also named Michael. "He was afraid he was going to get jumped or something."
Nevertheless, Brewer decided after the last school bell rang to go meet some friends. That was when he ran into the group of boys, including Bent, still wanting to collect the money for the video game and now upset about the Brewer confrontation and his arrest.
"It was because he wanted me to buy something from him that I didn't want to buy," Brewer told police.
Bent had previously planned to plead no contest, according to his former lawyer, but decided against it at the last minute.
Because of intense news media coverage, more than 200 jurors were questioned in advance to determine how many were familiar with the case and had strong opinions one way or the other. Circuit Judge Michael Robinson previously refused a defense request to move the trial elsewhere.
During final juror questioning Monday, Schneider asked whether jurors might have a problem returning a guilty verdict for someone as young as Bent. Most said they would not have any difficulty. Schneider also cautioned that it was unlikely to be an open-and-shut case.
"I think most of us, we'd love to have absolute certainty. But that's not what the law requires me to do," Schneider said.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
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