A 20-year-old Manchester man was sentenced yesterday to an 18-year prison term, the stiffest sentence handed down in the nearly fatal beating of Hereford Middle School teacher Jason Barnett.
Jimmy Zentz, who pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in December, was sentenced by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe. Howe also agreed to recommend that Zentz, who has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, serve his time at Patuxent Institution, a state facility for prisoners with mental health problems.
Zentz apologized for the attack yesterday in a barely audible voice.
"I'd like to say I'm sorry for what happened," he said.
Barnett, an agricultural sciences teacher at Hereford Middle School, was walking with two friends, Jeffrey David Gilbert and Gilbert's girlfriend, Tami Torrey, near Barnett's apartment in Cockeysville on June 18 when Zentz and three others began chasing them.
Someone in Zentz's group had asked Barnett whether he or his friends had any cigarettes, according to testimony in the Jan. 4 trial of Daniel J. Leksen, a co-defendant. Barnett said they didn't and asked Zentz's group whether they had any "chew," or chewing tobacco, according to testimony.
Barnett's response might have been taken as a sign of disrespect. He was knocked to the ground and repeatedly punched and kicked even after he lost consciousness, said Assistant State's Attorney James O. Gentry.
Barnett had four surgical procedures to reconstruct his shattered face and spent 11 days at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Jack I. Leibovitch, Zentz's lawyer, said yesterday that his client's role in the attack was limited to grabbing Gilbert from behind and throwing him to the ground. Zentz later wrote a letter of apology to Barnett, he added.
But Gentry said Zentz prevented Gilbert from helping Barnett, which made it possible for the others to inflict serious injuries.
"At the time of the attack, he was the only adult of the group, and the only adult with an adult criminal record," Gentry said.
Gentry said that as part of the plea agreement, he agreed not to ask for more time than the 10 to 18 years recommended in state sentencing guidelines.
Zentz was a juvenile in 1998 when he was convicted of drug possession. A year later, he was convicted of assault as an adult. He violated his probation on the assault charge by twice testing positive for marijuana, Gentry said.
Zentz told the judge yesterday that he had a $70-a-day heroin habit that he fed by borrowing money from friends.
Barnett said he was satisfied with the sentence and that the psychological scars from the attack are slowly beginning to heal.
"Waking up in the morning is definitely getting a little easier each day," he said.
Robin Watson, Zentz's mother, said she feels terrible for Barnett and his family. She said the four assailants might not have attacked Barnett that night if they had been sober or if any of them had been by themselves. Police said the four defendants had been drinking heavily that day.
"I don't condone anything that happened, but I'm his mother and I love him and support him," Watson said.
Franklin Medina, 16, of Cockeysville is serving an indefinite sentence at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore after his case was transferred to juvenile court Sept. 21.
Roy G. Higgs, 18, of Owings Mills was sentenced in December to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree assault.
Leksen, 18, of Cockeysville was convicted last month of first-degree assault by Judge Robert N. Dugan. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 19.