The trial is over, but legal maneuvers continue in the case of Matthew Bent, the Deerfield Beach teenager convicted in June of aggravated battery for inciting the burning attack of Michael Brewer in October 2009.
Bent, who faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, had been scheduled for sentencing on Aug. 10 but now he must wait longer after Broward Circuit Judge Michael A. Robinson, who presided over the trial, recused himself.
Broward Circuit Judge Matthew I. Destry now presides over the case, and on Tuesday he scheduled a status conference for Aug. 17 — without setting dates to address several outstanding issues, including a motion for a new trial submitted by Bent’s defense attorneys.
Robinson recused himself from the case on July 24 after defense attorneys moved to disqualify him based on comments the judge made during a post-trial hearing on an earlier motion to disqualify. Defense attorneys filed their first motion to disqualify Robinson in July, after the jury foreperson, Karen Bates-McCord, wrote a letter to the judge saying she had been pressured into a verdict by racial divisions among the jurors.
Robinson polled each juror after the verdict. Bates-McCord said the verdict she rendered was hers. She wrote the letter nine days later .
In their motion, defense attorneys argued that Bent feared he would not receive a fair hearing from Robinson because the judge had withheld information about the juror’s letter from the defense team, and because the judge allegedly met with the complaining juror in private.
Robinson declined that original motion on July 6, but then he made comments regarding the facts of the motion, which is forbidden by state law, said Johnny McCray, Jr., one of Bent’s two defense attorneys.
McCray then filed an amended motion, alleging in part that Robinson had said, “ ‘Defendant started this race, ran this race, and finished this race.’ The context in which the comment was made was that the horrific act of setting the victim, Michael Brewer, on fire was due to the defendant setting everything in motion, which demonstrates the court’s preconceived view that defendant was guilty.’’
The judge also commented on how and when he found out about Bates-McCord’s letter and whether a letter was actually dropped off at his chambers — calling into question the credibility of the juror, and undermining the judge’s impartiality, McCray said.
In her letter to the court, Bates-McCord said that she did not know she could insist on a not-guilty verdict because the judge had instructed the jury that their decision must be “unanimous.’’
After receiving Bates-McCord’s letter, Judge Robinson ordered the jury back to court for questioning about their deliberations.
In July, Bates-McCord gave sworn testimony about her experience, and said that while deliberating she was attacked by fellow jurors and called a racist. She also testified that fellow jurors stopped her from ringing a buzzer that would have summoned the court bailiff. The remaining jurors, however, did not testify.
It is unknown if Destry plans to question the remaining jurors about their deliberations.