FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Last-minute legal maneuvers prompted a delay in the start of the trial of Matthew Bent, the teenager accused of instigating the Oct. 12, 2009, attack that set Michael Brewer ablaze and nearly killed him.
With jury selection scheduled to begin Monday, Broward Circuit Judge Michael Robinson rejected a defense motion to kick the case back to the juvenile court system. Bent, now 17, was 15 when the attack on Brewer took place. Bent and two others were charged as adults in the crime. He faces 30 years in prison if convicted.
The motion by Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes to treat his client as a juvenile raised questions about Bent's capacity to understand his legal predicament. Last month, Bent elected to face trial rather than throw himself on the mercy of the court. His former co-defendants, Denver Jarvis and Jesus Mendez, each received prison sentences well under the 30-year maximum.
But prosecutor Maria Schneider asked Robinson on Monday to settle the issue of Bent's competency before picking a jury, and the judge agreed to have Bent evaluated this week. A competency hearing has been scheduled for Thursday.
Schneider said she is confident the defendant is competent to stand trial as an adult; if he weren't, she said, the defense would have tried to have him declared incompetent well before the day of trial. Settling the issue before trial blocks the defense from raising the issue on appeal should Bent be convicted.
Although Bent did not light the fire that engulfed Brewer in the parking lot of a Deerfield Beach apartment complex, prosecutors say it was his orders and his dispute with the victim that put Brewer's life in danger in the first place.
Bent is accused of telling Jarvis, then 15, to pour rubbing alcohol on Brewer as payback after Brewer's family called police on Bent for allegedly stealing a bicycle the day before. Mendez told investigators that he pulled out a small cigarette lighter and flicked it, igniting the fumes.
No one has accused Bent of directing Mendez, but the charge of second-degree attempted murder does not require prosecutors to prove Bent intended to set Brewer on fire.
If jury selection starts after Bent's competency hearing Thursday, there's no telling how long it will take. Weekes has stated in pre-trial hearings that he's concerned about being able to find enough jurors who don't know about what happened and haven't formed an opinion.
Bent, through Weekes, has denied involvement in the crime other than as a bystander and witness.
Brewer and his family were in court Monday, and after the hearing his grandmother expressed frustration at the latest delay.
"He understood everything he did that day," Reenie Brewer said of Bent. "Everything."
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