Judge mulls new trial in Fla. teen burning
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- The teenager who allegedly orchestrated an attack in which a middle school classmate was doused with alcohol and set ablaze deserves a new trial because a judge who recently took over the case must decide for himself whether evidence of guilt is sufficient and witnesses are credible, the teenager's lawyers said in court Thursday.
Attorneys for Matthew Bent, 18, said there were so many contradictory statements among key witnesses that the new judge should not impose sentence without seeing all the testimony live. Prosecutors contend it is sufficient for Broward Circuit Judge Matthew Destry to simply read the trial transcript.
Bent was convicted in June of aggravated battery in the 2009 attack on Michael Brewer, who was then 15. Brewer survived by jumping into an apartment complex swimming pool but suffered severe burns over two-thirds of his body in a case that drew nationwide attention.
Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider had sought a conviction for attempted second-degree murder -- two other teenagers pleaded no contest to that charge for their roles in the attack -- but jurors opted to go with the lesser charge. Several said after the trial that they decided to compromise because some doubted that Bent was truly behind the attack.
Defense attorney Johnny McCray Jr. said Thursday that there are enough questions about Bent's guilt to warrant a new trial, along with the decision by the original trial judge to step aside from the case before sentencing Bent. That happened after Bent's lawyers raised questions about contact between Circuit Judge Michael Robinson and a juror who claimed racial divisions and other problems led to an improper verdict.
"We have a case that's rife with credibility issues," McCray said. "Our position is that the verdict is not supported by the greater weight of the evidence."
Schneider, however, sought to minimize the witness credibility questions and noted they hadn't been raised in previous defense motions.
"The issue here was not what happened," she said. "The issue was whether what happened should be attributed to Mr. Bent. That's the crux of the case."
Destry said he would issue a decision on Tuesday. It's not clear what might happen to the juror's complaints about improper deliberations, which were made to the previous judge. If the aggravated battery conviction stands, Bent faces a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
If he goes to trial again on the attempted second-degree murder charge, Bent could get as much as 30 years behind bars if convicted.
Trial testimony showed that Bent and Brewer had gotten into a dispute the day before the attack when, according to Brewer, Bent was trying to force him to buy a marijuana pipe. When Brewer refused, prosecutors said Bent tried to take a bicycle from the Brewer home, which resulted in his arrest.
Brewer testified that he stayed home from Deerfield Beach Middle School the next day fearing reprisals from Bent. But after school let out Brewer decided to visit a friend and happened upon Bent and a group of boys who had found a jug of rubbing alcohol at a nearby apartment complex. One boy poured the liquid on Brewer and another lit a lighter, setting him ablaze.
The question was always whether Bent orchestrated the attack carried out by the others.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)