A Broward judge on Monday denied a new trial for a Deerfield Beach teen convicted of inciting the burning attack on another teen in 2009, saying there wasn’t enough evidence of jury misconduct.
Matthew Bent, now 18, awaits sentencing for his part in the attack on Michael Brewer, who turned 18 on Oct. 11.
After Bent’s conviction in June for aggravated battery, Broward Circuit Judge Matthew Destry recalled jurors to testify about claims made by the jury forewoman, who said she was called a racist by other jurors and pressured into compromising her verdict. The defense had asked the conviction be thrown out on grounds of jury misconduct.
If Destry had tossed the conviction, Bent would have gotten a new trial.
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“Given the history of this case, I knew we were fighting an uphill battle,’’ said Johnny McCray Jr., one of Bent’s attorneys.
McCray called Bent “a resilient kid [who] has faith and is optimistic,’’ and continues to maintain his innocence.
As Destry issued his ruling, Brewer’s mother, Valerie Brewer, sighed with relief and whispered, “Yes!’’
She and Michael’s grandmother, Reenie Brewer, had driven nearly 90 minutes to the courthouse from Loxahatchee, and “just want it over,’’ she said.
“It’s been three years. We’re faced with it over and over.’’
She said that Michael, who has one more year of high school, “just wants to live his life,’’ and has been “kind of kept in the dark’’ about developments in the case.
Reenie Brewer said that Michael “has a lot of stuff to overcome. The scars are bad.’’
But she said her “heart goes out to the families of all the boys,’’ who are paying a terrible price for doing something “stupid.’’
Brewer suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his body after a group of Deerfield Beach Middle School classmates poured rubbing alcohol over him and then flicked a lighter. He saved his life by jumping into a nearby swimming pool.
Brewer spent five months at Jackson Memorial Hospital and underwent seven skin grafts and three throat surgeries. His mother said that he’s considering joining the military, but the throat injuries might cause him to fail a physical.
Bent, considered the group’s ringleader, was originally charged with attempted second-degree murder with a weapon, but jurors returned a guilty verdict on the lesser charge of aggravated battery.
The other boys involved in the attack pleaded no contest to their roles in the crime. Denver Jarvis, who poured rubbing alcohol on Brewer, received an eight-year sentence. Jesus Mendez, who flicked a lighter, setting Brewer ablaze, is serving 11 years.
After the Bent jury came back with its verdict, forewoman Karen Bates McCord wrote the judge a letter saying she had wanted to acquit Bent of the charges, but felt pressured by the others to reach a compromise verdict. She also said her fellow jurors discussed race and reached conclusions before deliberations began.
Destry interviewed the jurors two weeks ago. While most jurors said they did discuss race, they said those discussions didn’t weigh on the verdict.
Only one juror, Jessica LaShawn Walker, corroborated part of McCord’s allegation. Walker said that during lunches together, she heard some jurors comment on the demeanor of Michael Brewer’s father, who testified at the trial that he used a racial epithet against Bent during a confrontation prior to the burning attack. But, Walker said, the comments were “nothing pertaining to the case.’’
She said McCord instructed her fellow jurors to change the subject several times, which provoked a reaction.
Another juror, Maria Linter, said she made a comment to McCord, but that she did not call her a racist.
“It was me who said don’t make this a racial case,’’ she told the judge. “Just go by the law.’’
Although Destry upheld the jury’s conviction, he still has another defense motion to consider.
Defense attorneys claim there was insufficient evidence to prove any of the teens involved in the attack intended to set Brewer on fire.
“None of the kids knew,’’ McCray said.
Because Destry did not oversee Bent’s trial — Judge Michael Robinson stepped down from the case in July — he will have to read the transcript before making a decision.
But if Destry declines the defense’s motion for acquittal, Bent faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.