FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Florida teenager was convicted Tuesday of aggravated battery in a horrific 2009 attack on a middle school classmate who was drenched in rubbing alcohol and set on fire.
Matthew "Zeke" Bent was accused of orchestrating the attack on Michael Brewer and charged with second-degree murder. The six jurors, who deliberated for just over a day, had the option of finding him guilty of a lesser offense.
Prosecutors say Bent offered others money to hurt Brewer, who was then 15. He suffered severe burns over 65 percent of his body but survived after leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool.
"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."
Bent and two other teens were charged with second-degree attempted murder. 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 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.
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 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.