A teenager convicted of orchestrating an attack on a middle school classmate who was soaked in alcohol and lit ablaze was sentenced to 11 years in prison Thursday even as he continued to insist his innocence.
Circuit Judge Matthew Destry agreed with prosecutors that Matthew Bent, 18, deserved the same sentence as the youth who flicked the lighter during the 2009 attack on Michael Brewer, who was then 15. Although Bent did not set the fire or pour the flammable liquid, Destry said he was just as much to blame. Bent was convicted of aggravated battery in June.
"I cannot ignore that, but for Mr. Bent's orchestration of these events, none of this would have happened," Destry said.
Before he was sentenced, Bent turned and apologized to Brewer but said he was not the ringleader.
"I just want to say sorry to Michael and his family for them going through the tragedy they went through," he said. "I didn't intend for any of this to happen. I didn't tell nobody to do that."
Brewer survived by leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool but suffered severe burns over two-thirds of his body. In court Thursday, he looked in good shape physically but family members say his skin grafts still cause pain and he suffers from frequent nightmares. His mother, Valerie Brewer, said the family was satisfied with the sentence.
"What happened to Michael touched people around the world. We got justice today," she said.
"It's an experience you will never forget. You will never forget the smells, the screams, the cries, all the things that go with somebody who has had all of their skin burned off of their body," said Maureen Brewer, his grandmother.
Brewer himself declined comment. "I'm good," he said.
The series of events began with a marijuana pipe that Brewer testified Bent wanted him to purchase. When Brewer declined, Bent allegedly went to the Brewer home and tried to steal a bicycle. Bent was arrested on theft charges.
The next day, fearing a reprisal, Brewer stayed home from Deerfield Beach Middle School that most of the boys involved attended. When school let out, Bent and a group of boys were walking home when they happened to find a jug of rubbing alcohol atop an apartment complex wall. About the same time, they ran into Brewer, who had decided to go over to a friend's house.
What happened next is in dispute. Some boys say Bent offered to pay them to punch Brewer, and others say it was Bent who signaled that they would pour the alcohol on him. Ultimately, according to trial testimony, the jug was dumped on Brewer by Denver Colorado Jarvis and then Jesus Mendez flicked his lighter.
Jarvis and Mendez pleaded no contest to attempted second-degree murder charges. Jarvis is serving an eight-year sentence and Mendez was sentenced to 11 years. Bent at one point was offered a plea deal and eight-year sentence, but opted for trial. He was acquitted of the attempted murder charge but convicted of aggravated battery in June.
Prosecutor Maria Schneider had urged Destry to impose the 11-year term on Bent, still less than the 15-year maximum.
"This young man refuses to accept any responsibility for what happened to Michael Brewer. I think that's very disturbing," she said.
Bent's parents also apologized.
"If I could have run a background check on the friends that he hung with, I probably could've stopped this from actually happening because I was home on the day that this happened, and I didn't know what his friends were capable of doing and then he ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Dennis Bent, Matthew's father.
"If I could say to the Brewers, I am sorry for what happened to your son and we did speak to you before we told you we are sorry for what happened to Michael. We never want anything like that to happen to anybody, not even we don't know. We prayed for this boy from the day it happened," said Cheri Bent, Matthew's mother.
Bent will be given credit for the three-plus years he has already spent in jail, leaving him with less than eight years to go. Dennis Bent said the conviction and sentence will be appealed.
"This case, it's not over," Dennis Bent said. "He didn't do anything wrong. I don't see it as fully justice."
"I believe my son -- he is innocent," said Cheri Bent. "And I pray to God and hope that he will come home."