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Defense says Fla. teen did not plot or participate in '09 burning attack on schoolmate
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) ' A teenager on trial for attempted murder did not plot or participate in an attack on a middle school classmate who was doused with alcohol and set ablaze, a defense attorney told a jury Tuesday.
Matthew "Zeke" Bent was among a group of boys involved in the October 2009 confrontation with Michael Brewer, then 15, but it was two other boys who actually poured a jug of the flammable liquid on Brewer and lit him on fire, attorney Perry Thurston Jr. said in an opening statement.
"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."
Bent, now 17, faces a maximum 30-year prison sentence if convicted of second-degree attempted murder. Brewer has 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 a supposed unpaid debt, described in court papers as 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, admitted pouring the rubbing alcohol on Brewer and 18-year-old Jesus "Junior" Mendez acknowledged flicking his lighter. Mendez was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Jarvis was sentenced to eight.
Brewer 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."
The boys were students at Deerfield Beach Middle School. 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, Bent allegedly tried to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father and was arrested. 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, but then went to meet a friend shortly after the last bell rang. A group of boys including Bent confronted Brewer.
"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.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt .