Mills snapped his head up. "I'm telling you, though, I didn't hit the kid," he said.
Later, as Mills wearied, he blurted at one point, "I guess you said if I want to talk to my attorney, that I can come back."
But the taped interrogation continued.
Mills admitted he punched Guerra.
We have witnesses who saw you hit Nguyen, the detectives said.
And they said: You're a streetwise kid. Don't play the martyr for your buddies.
Mills went before a jury a few weeks later. His attorney, Bo Hitchcock, had pressed for a speedy trial, hoping to catch prosecutors from the State Attorney's Office off-balance. Broward Circuit Judge Richard Eade presided. Eade would also preside over the trials of the six other young men charged with killing Nguyen. He was alarmed that Hitchcock was rushing it, Eade recalled recently. More than once, Eade pointed out, he asked Mills whether Mills understood that a speedy trial could mean an inadequate defense. Mills deferred to Hitchcock. Hitchcock pressed ahead.
To Hitchcock's consternation, Mills came to trial still wearing his hair in the badass mullet he had the night Nguyen was stomped. He wore a black suit. He still seemed detached.
Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino prosecuted. After the jury watched the interrogation tape, Magrino told them to consider Mills' near-silence: that's a tacit admission of guilt, he said.
Hitchcock did not try to get the tape suppressed or edited. The jury watched the whole thing, even the part where Mills stood up and pantomimed throwing a punch into a melee.
Dr. Ronald Wright, the medical examiner, showed the jury photos of Nguyen's bruised corpse. Speaking unequivocally, and wearing a lopsided bowtie, Wright spent 30 minutes detailing the insults to the body of the five-foot, six-inch, 139-pound Nguyen. Each blow could have contributed to a stunning effect, Wright said; so when the final blow came, Nguyen was disoriented. His reflexes were gone. The cause of death, Wright said, was a subarachnoid hemorrhage due to a lacerated vertebral artery. In other words, someone whacked Nguyen so hard at the base of his skull that they split his artery, killing him. That's an extremely rare injury, Wright told the jury. Typically, someone felled that way is drunk. Disoriented. But not punch-drunk. And the toxicology report did not show any drugs or alcohol in Nguyen that night.
Jeff Sintay testified. He stood side by side with Magrino and told the jury he saw Mills punch Nguyen at the start of the brawl. Using Magrino as a stand-in for Nguyen, Sintay faked a jab, twice, to demonstrate. But this was almost just the opposite of what Sintay initially told police.
Asked by police if Mills hit Nguyen, Sintay had said "Er, I don't think so." Sintay told police that he'd met Mills before that night. Mills, he said, "was the one that was trying to keep anything from happening. He knew me and, you know, I guess he liked me or whatever. And he was telling me, you know, 'Something's gonna happen if you don't take your friends and go.'"
A few weeks later, Sintay told a jury that he'd never met Mills before the party at Springside Apartments, the night Nguyen was killed. He was adamant.
Mills has had plenty of time to think about this. "They're saying that by me calling these people down from the balcony, and knowing that they had a reputation for fighting, that I was putting the victim in harm's way," he says. But when "you really look at the situation, Jeff Sintay's the one that started this whole thing in motion."
Sintay, contacted recently, wanted no part of it. "It's over," he said. And then: "It was a long time ago."
Mills started the fire that night, Magrino told the jury. "The defendant is not a peacemaker. He's a murderer." On October 21, 1992, after deliberating for three hours, they found Brad Mills guilty of second-degree murder.
State guidelines for second-degree murder are seven to 22 years. Letters came for Judge Eade urging him to put Mills away for life, saying this was a hate crime. Make an example of him, they said.
"You can't do that to people," Eade says now.
On December 8, 1992, Eade cited the "savagery" of the crime, plus the fact that as young as he was, Mills already had a record for assault and stealing a car. Eade sentenced him to 50 years, with no hope of parole.
"You might as well give me the electric chair," Mills said in court.
After his son's conviction, Jerry Mills started taking Prozac. He needed to keep working to pay the lawyer's fees, and he couldn't stop crying.