Matthew Bent, Denver Colorado Jarvis, and Jesus Mendez are three sixteen-year-olds charged with attempted murder for their alleged roles in setting their schoolmate Michael Brewer on fire more than a year ago. Today they appeared in court -- in sight of Brewer for the first time since he was doused with a flammable substance and set on fire -- for what many expected to be a guilty-plea deal for a reduced sentence. Reporters from national and local news outlets crowded the courtroom.
"We're offering a sentence of fifteen years in custody and ten years' probation for Mr. Mendez... and ten years in custody with ten years' probation for Mr. Bent and Mr. Jarvis," said Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider. (Mendez faced more time because he's the one who allegedly flicked the lighter to set Brewer's body on fire. "It's related to the degree of his part in the actual cause of harm," Schneider told reporters after the hearing.)
While the deal offered in court was less than the 30- to 50- year maximum sentences possible should the case go to trial, the defense lawyers representing the boys seemed surprised.
Mendez's attorney, Melissa Zelniker-Presser, told judge Jeffrey Levenson, "There was a misunderstanding." She said she had expected the state's offer for her client to be ten years in prison, not 15.
Schneider countered, "I work for Michael Satz [the state attorney for Broward County] and Mr. Satz is ultimately the person who makes the plea offers."
Attorneys for all three defendants rejected the pleas, and asked by the judge when she might be ready for a trial, Zelinker-Presser suggested that they schedule a trial date no earlier than February. "We have a lot of work left to be done with depositions. We're about halfway done." Gordon Weekes, Bent's attorney, agreed that 30 or more depositions still need to be taken for the defense. Judge Jeffrey Levinson suggested scheduling another status hearing for December 13 to "see where we are with the depos[itions]."
The defendants are being tried as adults. Before the hearing adjourned, the prosecution and defense attorneys discussed concerns about whether they would be classified as "youthful offenders" by the court as well as the Department of Corrections.
After the hearing, Matthew Bent's father indicated that he had been expecting a plea deal less severe than the one offered by Schneider. "He didn't do anything," said Dennis Bent, in reference to his son Matthew. Prosecutors have portrayed Bent as the ringleader who allegedly told Jarvis to dump a flammable liquid on Brewer.
Neither Schneider nor the defense attorneys would elaborate on how they came to a misunderstanding about a plea being reached today.
"The offer has been on the table for a while," Schneider told about 20 reporters gathered in the hallway.
Some people in the courtroom gallery could be overheard speculating that the tough sentence and outright rejection of the plea involved tough posturing by both sides of the case.
"I strongly think that all this media attention is causing this case not to be resolved," said Weekes, to reporters.
The kids said they found a bottle of alcohol while walking on the street near their homes. After Brewer caught fire, he ran into a nearby pool and jumped in. Brewer suffered second- and third-degree burns across much of his body, but he has since returned to a different middle school.