In the instant that it took to flick a lighter, the lives of four teenaged boys were changed in ways they never intended.
Three of them will spend years behind bars, and a fourth will always carry the physical scars and emotional pain of having been set on fire and nearly killed in an attack that made international headlines three years ago.
“Ten minutes in the lives of these kids changed their lives forever,’’ said defense attorney Perry Thurston Jr., just minutes after his client, Matthew Bent, was found guilty of aggravated battery in Broward Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Bent, 17, is the accused ringleader in the burning of Michael Brewer.
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Although he never laid a hand on Brewer, who was 15 at the time of the attack, prosecutors said it was Bent who encouraged a friend to pour rubbing alcohol on Brewer during an after-school confrontation in October 2009. Another boy then flicked a lighter, setting Brewer on fire.
Brewer, who saved his own life by jumping into a nearby swimming pool, suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his body. He spent months at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors performed seven skin grafts and three throat surgeries.
Brewer testified at Bent’s trial, and described the agony of seeing the skin peel off his hands as he reached out for help. But Brewer, who was present outside the courtroom every day of the week-long trial, skipped Tuesday’s jury verdict.
Jeanne Brady, a registered nurse and attorney representing the Brewers, said the family respects the jury’s decision to find Bent guilty of a lesser charge than the one he faced: attempted second-degree murder.
“Now it’s time for Michael to get on with his life,’’ Brady said. “Now he has closure. Closure is the most important thing for Michael Brewer today, so he can begin the healing journey.’’
Kal Le Var Evans, an assistant state attorney prosecuting the case, said the trial had taken “a lot out of Michael. ... He’s a young child.’’
Brewer still suffers night terrors that he’s being burned alive, his mother, Valerie, testified at trial, and he undergoes physical therapy to soften the thick scars that limit his movements.
Evans said prosecutors will ask Circuit Judge Michael A. Robinson, who presided over the case, to impose the maximum penalty of 15 years in state prison at Bent’s sentence hearing on July 23.
Bent, who has been in jail since his arrest on the day of the attack in October 2009, will appeal the jury’s decision, Thurston said.
“He thought that three years for his involvement was quite substantial,’’ Thurston said. “He’s extremely remorseful.’
Bent was the only one of the three teens charged in the attack to face a jury trial. He had faced an attempted second degree murder charge, which carries a 30-year sentence.
Prosecutors say Bent was angry with Brewer because of a $40 debt, and because Brewer’s parents had Bent arrested on Oct. 11, 2009 for attempting to steal a bicycle from the screened front porch of the family home.
The following day, prosecutors said, Bent offered $5 to a friend, Denver “D.C.” Jarvis, to pour rubbing alcohol on Brewer near the driveway of a Deerfield Beach apartment complex. A second boy, Jesus “Junior” Mendez, then flicked a lighter and set Brewer ablaze. The boys were all classmates at Deerfield Beach Middle School.
Jarvis, 17, and Mendez, 18, pleaded no contest for their roles in the crime. Jarvis was sentenced to eight years in prison, and Mendez received 11 years.
Both testified at Bent’s trial last week.
Bent, who declined to take the witness stand in his own defense, maintained that he was an innocent bystander to the attack.
Johnny McCray Jr., one of Bent’s defense attorneys, said his client reacted with disappointment at the jury’s verdict.
“He understands what happened,’’ McCray said.
Though the attack on Brewer generated interest around the world, it was just one in a series of youth violence that occurred in South Florida within a short time.
Just one month prior, in September 2009, 17-year-old Andy Rodriguez was charged with second-degree murder for stabbing to death his classmate, Juan Carlos Rivera, at Coral Gables High School. The boys had been fighting over a girl. Rodriguez was found guilty of second-degree murder and is now serving a 40-year sentence.
Then in March 2010, Josie Lou Ratley, an eighth-grader at Deerfield Beach Middle School, was severely beaten while she waited for a bus after school.
Wayne Treacy, a school mate, allegedly kicked Ratley in the head repeatedly with steel-toed boots because he was upset about a text that Ratley had sent him about his brother, who had committed suicide.
Treacy faces attempted first-degree murder charges in a trial that is expected to begin in Broward Criminal Court next week.
Though Brewer’s case is one of numerous high-profile bullying acts to receive national attention is recent years, Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis (no relation to Denver Jarvis) said he’s skeptical that such acts are occurring more frequently than in the past, or with more viciousness.
What has changed, according to Jarvis: Bullying is now defined much more broadly than it used to be, and its potential for long-lasting psychological damage is recognized more clearly, thanks to a wealth of social and psychological research that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago.
“Once upon a time, this was ‘Just something that kids do,’’’ Jarvis said, “and they will grow out of it. We now know that that is not the case, and it does create lasting emotional scars.”
Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.