Two teenagers accused of setting schoolmate Michael Brewer on fire in a Deerfield Beach parking lot more than two years ago pleaded no contest to second degree attempted murder Wednesday, throwing themselves on the mercy of a Broward judge instead of taking their chances with a jury.
A third defendant decided, apparently at the last minute, to take his case to trial as scheduled next month.
Jesus Mendez, 18, was promptly sentenced to 11 years in a Florida state prison, one year of community control and 18 years of probation. Co-defendant Denver Jarvis, 17, received an eight-year prison sentence, to be followed by one year of community control and 21 years of probation.
The prison terms will be reduced by the two years and four months that Mendez and Jarvis have served in the Broward Main Jail since their arrests.
No contest pleas have the same effect in court as guilty pleas, but do not include an explicit admission of guilt.
Broward Circuit Judge Michael Robinson was told all three defendants would be pleading out their cases, but accused ringleader Matthew Bent, 17, announced through his lawyer, Gordon Weekes, that he would rather go to trial. Jury selection is set to begin March 12.
Jarvis and Mendez will be called to testify, said prosecutor Maria Schneider.
Brewer, who had just turned 15 when he was set ablaze on Oct. 12, 2009, has largely recovered from the incident, which left him with second- and third-degree burns over two-thirds of his body. He now lives in West Palm Beach in a home bought partly with donations from people who were outraged at the crime.
He was in court Wednesday with his parents, two grandparents and an aunt. He did not speak in court.
Schneider conceded to Robinson that the teenagers never intended to set Brewer on fire. Bent is accused of ordering Jarvis to pour a liquid on Brewer that he knew was flammable, and Jarvis admits he did it.
Before he was sentenced, Jarvis told the court, "Had I known that something like that would happen, I never would have [participated in the attack]."
Bent was reportedly angry that Brewer's family had called the police on him when he took a custom bicycle from Brewer's property the night before. He was looking to settle a $40 debt over a "Little Mermaid" video game, according to court documents.
But no witness has ever accused Bent of asking or suggesting that anyone flick a lighter in Brewer's presence.
Mendez never laid a hand on Brewer, said his lawyer, Marcus Griggs. The lighter he flicked ignited the fumes from the liquid that had been poured on Brewer. The boys scattered, leaving Brewer to save his own life by jumping into a nearby pool.
"This act is the, singly speaking, most heinous act that anybody can commit against a human being," Brewer's grandmother, Reenie Brewer, told Robinson. "It's worse than a shot to the head."
Brewer said her grandson was traumatized for weeks after the attack. She described how he would kick his legs, thinking he was still on fire.
"We hoped then, and still hope today, that he never remembers the pain he went through," she said.
Robinson said Mendez got more prison time than his co-defendant because his actions had graver consequences. If not for Mendez's carelessness with the lighter, Robinson said, "we would not be here."
Defense lawyer Valerie Small-Williams, representing Jarvis, said her client was genuinely remorseful and wanted to convey his apologies to Brewer and his family. Asking Robinson to sentence Jarvis as a juvenile, she cast the incident as a would-be harmless confrontation gone terribly wrong.
"There was nothing sophisticated about how they went about committing this act," Small-Williams said. "Juvenile minds do not think of the consequences of their actions the way an adult mind does, the way most adult minds do. This was a childhood prank that turned into a dangerous crime."
The defendants each faced 30 years in prison if convicted at trial, but even the Brewer family agreed that was too harsh considering the lack of intent, Schneider said. But the results of the attack, and the defendants' failure to help Brewer once the fire started, made it important to impose significant prison time, she said.
No deal was reached between the defendants and the State Attorney's Office. The sentences handed down by Robinson were not as harsh as the prosecution wanted and not as lenient as the defense had hoped.
Outside the courtroom afterward, the victim said he was not convinced there was anything accidental or unintentional about the incident.
"They knew exactly what they were doing," he said of his former friends.
Family members of the defendants declined to comment.