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Judge considers request for new trial in Michael Brewer burning case

After a Broward jury convicted him of aggravated battery in June for inciting the burning attack of Michael Brewer in October 2009, Matthew Bent asked for a new judge to hear his case, and his request was granted.

Now Bent, 18, is asking for a new trial, and the new judge presiding over the case indicated Thursday that he might grant that request as well.

Broward Circuit Judge Matthew I. Destry said he was troubled that the verdict in Bent’s trial was contrary to the weight of the evidence presented against him. Jurors convicted Bent of aggravated battery, but that is a lesser crime than the one prosecutors charged him with: attempted second-degree murder.

“The issue here revolves around this principle of fundamental law,” Destry told attorneys. “Was the verdict contrary to the weight of evidence?”

But Destry may not need to rule on Bent’s request for a new trial if he agrees with the argument presented by Scott Raft, an assistant state attorney.

Raft said Broward Circuit Judge Michael A. Robinson erred when he stepped down from the case in July because Bent’s request for a new judge was “legally insufficient” and based on the defendant’s own opinion that the judge was prejudiced against him.

By granting a legally insufficient request for a new judge, Robinson invited an error into the case, Raft said, and Bent should not benefit from that error by receiving a new trial.

But defense attorney Johnny McCray Jr. asserted that Bent’s request for a new judge was legally sound — and that his client’s request for a new trial was not based on Robinson’s alleged prejudice against Bent, but on the lack of credibility of witnesses presented at his trial.

“We have a case that’s rife with credibility issues,” McCray said, adding that at least five witnesses gave inconsistent testimony of the events surrounding the attack on Brewer, who was seriously burned when he was set afire at a Deerfield Beach apartment complex.

“Not only did they give inconsistent statements,” McCray said, “but their statements conflicted with each other.”

Maria Schneider, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued that defense attorneys never made that assertion during trial.

“Not one credibility issue was argued,” she said.

What’s more, Schneider said, the issue at trial was not what happened to Brewer.

Everyone acknowledged that Brewer had been doused with rubbing alcohol and set ablaze by two other boys at the apartment complex near Deerfield Beach Middle School, where all the boys were enrolled.

Brewer, who saved his own life by jumping into a swimming pool, suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his body. He underwent seven skin grafts and three throat surgeries during a five-month hospital stay.

The two boys who carried out the burning pleaded no contest to their roles in the crime, and they received prison sentences of eight and 11 years, plus probation.

Bent was the last remaining defendant in the case — accused of orchestrating the attack — and the only one who pleaded not guilty and chose to go to a jury trial.

“The issue has always been whether the responsibility for what happened should be attributed to Mr. Bent,” Schneider said. “This isn’t a case where the facts were really that much an issue.”

But Destry said that did not mean the credibility of witnesses was unassailable.

“If the facts were so clear and there was no issue of credibility,” he said, “then why not return a guilty verdict as charged?”

Destry said he would announce his ruling on Bent’s request for a new trial on Sept. 18.