FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As Matthew "Zeke" Bent awaited trial on charges that he plotted an attack in which a Florida middle school student was set on fire, he considered entering a plea of no contest to a charge of attempted second-degree murder. But his attorneys advised against it at the last minute, insisting he was not the instigator of the attack and never intended to hurt the 15-year-old victim.
On Tuesday, jurors in Bent's trial convicted the 17-year-old of a lesser charge of aggravated battery. A conviction for aggravated battery carries a maximum of 15 years in prison, about half of what one for attempted second-degree murder brings.
Bent will be sentenced July 23.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt and tie, Bent looked down briefly as the verdict was read but showed no emotion as the handcuffs were placed on his wrists. Prosecutors said they will ask for the maximum penalty. His lawyers said they plan to file an appeal. They noted that he's already spent three years in jail awaiting trial.
"He thought that three years for his involvement was quite substantial," said defense attorney Perry Thurston, Jr. "He's disappointed."
Bent and two other teenagers were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder in the attack on Michael Brewer.
Denver "D.C." Jarvis, 17, and Jesus Mendez, 18, pleaded no contest and were sentenced to eight and 11 years behind bars, respectively.
Bent had previously planned to plead no contest, according to his former lawyer.
"You're talking about 14- and 15- year-old boys. This is something that was horrific and went terribly wrong," said Thurston, Jr. "But this is just a back story of what goes horribly wrong with kids walking home from school. Ten minutes' time in the lives of all of these kids has changed their lives totally."
Brewer testified that he stayed home from school on the day of the attack because he was afraid of Bent. The two had gotten into a dispute over a marijuana pipe 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 suffered severe burns over 65 percent of his body but survived after leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool. He 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.
He and his family had been in court for much of the trail, but they weren't present as the verdict was read.
"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.
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 had 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.
Thurston, Jr., the defense attorney, said Bent understood what Brewer went through.
"He's extremely remorseful," he said. "He's seen the horrific pictures. He listened to the 911 tape. He understands that it's unfortunate what he went through."