Two families forever changed by the horrific burning attack of a teenaged boy closed a painful chapter in their lives Thursday when a Broward judge sentenced Matthew Bent, a Deerfield Beach teen, to 11 years in prison for inciting a group of friends to set fire to and nearly kill Michael Brewer in October 2009.
Bent, 18, apologized to Brewer and his parents and grandmother, who were seated in the front row of the gallery, but he denied responsibility for orchestrating the attack when questioned by a prosecutor prior to sentencing.
“I just wanted to say sorry to Michael and his family for them going through this tragedy,’’ Bent said.
He apologized to his parents and relatives seated in the gallery, and said he never meant for any harm to happen.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“If I could take it back,’’ Bent said, “I would.’’
Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider, who prosecuted the case, attempted to coax an admission of responsibility from Bent. But he refused.
Dressed in a blue prisoner’s jumpsuit, Bent said he was not angry that — the day before the attack — the Brewers had called the police and pressed burglary charges against him for taking a bicycle from the front porch of the Brewers’ home.
He said he never told friends to pour rubbing alcohol on Michael, and that he never offered anyone money to fight Michael, as some witnesses testified at trial in June.
“I didn’t want to hurt him,’’ Bent said.
Schneider reminded Bent that witnesses also testified that he called Michael over in order to distract him while another boy poured the rubbing alcohol over Michael’s head.
“I didn’t tell nobody to do that,’’ Bent said.
Schneider was incredulous.
“You’re taking absolutely no responsibility for what happened,’’ she said.
“I feel sorry for what happened,’’ he replied.
The exchange followed an impassioned plea for mercy from Bent’s parents, Dennis and Cheri Bent.
“My son is innocent,’’ Cheri Bent said. “He is not who everybody is making him out to be.’’
Then she, too, turned to the Brewers and apologized.
“We’d never want something like that to happen to anyone,’’ she said. “My son, Matthew Bent, would never, ever do anything like that. ... It would not go through his mind.’’
But Broward Circuit Judge Matthew Destry also heard from Michael’s paternal grandmother, Maureen Brewer, who approached the speaker’s podium accompanied by Michael’s mother, Valerie Brewer.
“This has been a nightmare to say the least,’’ Maureen Brewer said.
She spoke of the unforgettable smells, screams and cries of a boy whose skin had been burned off. Michael spent three months in the hospital, she said, and he underwent seven surgeries, including skin grafts and a tracheotomy.
Michael was burned over most of his body, she said, and all but his face, hands and feet bear thick scar tissue.
“Now we’re trying to heal some of the scars on the inside,’’ she said.
Michael, 18, plays football, jumps on the trampoline, and “He tries to be pretty much normal,’’ Maureen Brewer said.
But he undergoes regular physical therapy, and he still suffers nightmares from the attack.
“He’ll wake up screaming and crying,’’ she said.
Before delivering the sentence, Destry said he had weighed the case “for a long time,’’ and that it was not an easy decision.
A Broward jury found Bent guilty of aggravated battery in June but cleared him of the more serious charge of attempted second-degree murder.
Bent was the only one of three defendants charged with attempted second-degree murder for the attack to go to trial.
Denver Jarvis, 18, who admitted to pouring the rubbing alcohol on Brewer, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to eight years in prison followed by probation. Jesus Mendez, 19, who admitted to flicking the lighter that set Brewer on fire, also pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Though witnesses at the trial differed in their recollection of events leading up to the attack, all of the witnesses who were at the scene said no one ever discussed burning Brewer.
Brewer, who was 15 at the time, saved his own life by jumping into a nearby swimming pool.
On Thursday, the Bent family’s pastor, the Rev. Merwyn Tracy Smith, testified that Matthew Bent had been an altar boy at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Deerfield Beach, and that he was always respectful of his elders.
Defense attorneys testified that Bent had completed numerous life skills courses while in Broward County Jail, and earned his General Equivalency Diploma.
But Destry remained convinced of Bent’s culpability in the attack.
“Mr. Bent is not the person who actually lit Michael Brewer on fire. That responsibility properly attaches to Mr. Mendez,’’ Destry said. “However, I cannot ignore that but for Mr. Bent’s orchestration of these events, none of this would have happened.’’
After Destry handed down the sentence, a woman seated with the Bent family wailed.
Michael remained silent, but his mother, Valerie Brewer, shed tears and hugged her son.
Bent, who had faced a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, will get credit for time already served, which has been a little more than three years.
Outside the courtroom, Dennis Bent vowed to appeal his son’s conviction.
“This isn’t justice,’’ he said.
But the Brewer family, which has since moved to West Palm Beach, was satisfied.
“We got justice today,’’ Valerie Brewer said. “Now, we’re going to close this chapter.’’