FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Trial was set to begin Tuesday in the 2009 attack on a teenager who was doused with alcohol and set ablaze by his own middle school classmates in a dispute over a $40 video game.
A six-person jury plus two alternates was seated Monday to hear the state's case against Matthew "Zeke" Bent, who allegedly orchestrated the attack on then-15-year-old Michael Brewer. Bent, now 17, faces a maximum 30-year prison sentence if convicted of attempted second-degree murder in a case that drew national attention.
Brewer, also now 17, is on the state's witness list, as are two other youths who previously pleaded no contest for their roles in the attack. Denver Colorado "D.C." Jarvis, 17, admitted pouring the rubbing alcohol on Brewer and 18-year-old Jesus "Junior" Mendez acknowledged flicking the lighter that ignited the fluid and burned Brewer over 65 percent of his body. Mendez was sentenced to 11 years in prison, Jarvis to eight.
Brewer survived after jumping into an apartment complex swimming pool but suffered second- and third-degree burns. He spent months in the hospital, undergoing painful skin graft surgeries, followed by lengthy physical rehabilitation. He has largely recovered physically, but his mother said Monday much of what happened that horrific day is still fresh in his mind.
"He's scared," Valerie Brewer said. "He's got a lot of mental scars that may never go away."
All the boys involved were students at Deerfield Beach Middle School. According to statements given to police, Bent wanted revenge because Brewer refused to buy a $40 video game. After the rebuff, Bent allegedly tried to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father, leading to his arrest.
A group of boys including Bent confronted Brewer after school in October 2009, after happening by chance upon a jug filled with rubbing alcohol that had been left outside an apartment complex.
"It was because he wanted me to buy something from him that I didn't want to buy," Brewer told police.
Bent attorneys Johnny McCray and Perry Thurston Jr. -- also a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives from Fort Lauderdale -- are expected to focus their defense on whether there's adequate proof Bent actually gave orders leading to the attack. Bent had initially planned to plead no contest but decided against it at the last minute, opting instead for trial.
"Mr. Bent is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," McCray reminded jurors. "Can you presume that he is innocent?"
The prospective jurors said they could.
Because of intense local 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 change of venue motion aimed at moving the trial elsewhere.
During final juror questioning Monday, Assistant State Attorney Maria 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.
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