FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A state prosecutor argued Wednesday that there's no evidence racial prejudice swayed the jury that convicted a teen of urging friends to soak a classmate with alcohol and set him on fire, even though race was discussed by jurors.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Raft said testimony from most of the jurors at a hearing last week showed that they wanted to keep race out of their deliberations in the trial of 18-year-old Matthew Bent, who is black. The victim in of the 2009 attack, Michael Brewer, is white, and use of racial slurs was part of the trial testimony.
The hearing Wednesday concerned allegations made by jury forewoman Karen Bates-McCord, who is black, that race improperly intruded into deliberations and that she was called a racist by another juror. Bent's lawyers are seeking a new trial based on those allegations.
The Florida Supreme Court has ruled in past cases that one or more jurors must make an "open appeal" to the racial prejudices of others in trying to influence the outcome of a case, Raft said. Several other jurors said the point was not to decide the case on racial grounds.
"In this case, what the jurors did was what we want them to do. They challenged each other," Raft said. "It was a discussion not to base the verdict on race."
Bent attorney Perry Thurston, however, said even that much discussion of race could have resulted in a tainted verdict and urged Circuit Judge Matthew Destry to order a second trial.
The jurors' testimony, he said. "clearly shows that there was improper deliberations, improper comments regarding racial animosity. That is clearly, clearly out of bounds."
Destry said he would issue a ruling by Monday and also will consider whether jurors improperly began deliberating before the trial ended. He denied a previous motion for a new trial based on the previous judge's decision to step aside from the case before sentencing Bent, who faces up to 15 years in prison. The trial judge, Michael Robinson, stepped aside after Bent's lawyers complained that he had improperly spoken in private with Bates-McCord, the jury forewoman, about the race issues.
Brewer, who was then 15, was burned over two-thirds of his body when a group of boys including Bent set him on fire just over three years ago. He survived by jumping into an apartment complex swimming pool and has largely recovered. A family lawyer said the now 18-year-old Brewer is on track to graduate from high school this year.
The attack, which gained national attention, happened after Brewer refused to buy a marijuana pipe from Bent, according to trial testimony. Bent retaliated by attempting to steal a bicycle from the Brewer home, resulting in his arrest for attempted theft.
The next day, Bent's group happened to find a jug of rubbing alcohol at an apartment complex on the way home from Deerfield Beach Middle School. They encountered Brewer, and prosecutors say Bent urged another boy to pour the liquid on Brewer. A third boy then flicked his lighter.
Denver Colorado Jarvis, 18, is serving an eight-year prison sentence for dousing Brewer in alcohol. Jesus Mendez, also 18, is doing 11 years for starting the fire.
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