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Community trust tested in dentist's murder trial

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002


Anybody who believes the case of Fla. v. Puryear has nothing to do with race is absolutely, positively, kidding himself.

The case has everything to do with race, though it hasn't been treated as a hate crime. That means it has everything to do with perception.

Randy Puryear, a white dentist, faces a second-degree murder charge in the shooting of Jemale Wells, a 39-year-old black man, during a scuffle that erupted on a Sunday afternoon in September 2000 in Countryway, a Tampa suburb. Some boys had been fighting. Wells tried to break it up. One boy, who was white, complained to his mother. She called Puryear, her boyfriend. He showed up waving a gun.

If Puryear and Wells were both white, or both black, this incident might be a footnote in the paper. But this is no footnote, especially for the people who loved Jemale Wells.

Members of Wells' college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, and his church, St. Luke's AME in Belmont Heights, are in court daily for Puryear's trial. For more than two years, they thought Puryear was getting off easy. They still do, even though the prosecution's case contains a significant weakness.

There's no evidence clearly establishing who fired the gun that killed Wells. The gun went off as Wells and Puryear struggled; the shooting could have been utterly accidental. If Puryear fired the gun, he should have had gunpowder residue on his hands. None showed up in a police test.

The test, though, was conducted two hours after the shooting. Residue begins to dissipate an hour after a gun is fired.

But this is mere detail to the people who come to court for Jemale Wells.

"It doesn't matter who pulled the trigger," said 74-year-old Curtiss Wilson, a member of St. Luke's AME. "If (Puryear) hadn't showed up with that gun, Jemale would still be alive ... He took the law into his own hands, and that's what makes him guilty."

The weakness in the evidence explains why Puryear was first charged with only manslaughter. He was out on bail in no time. Protests that made the phones of black politicians ring off the hook led prosecutors to raise the charge to second-degree murder. If convicted, Puryear could spend his life in prison.

Mrs. Wilson wanted him charged with a hate crime, but that requires demonstration of a specific intent to set out to hurt a someone because of his or her race. The prosecutors decided there was no specific intent, even though Puryear came out of his car shouting racial terms at Wells.

Those such as Mrs. Wilson make an enormous leap of faith that the all-white jury will see the facts as they do. If the jury backs away from second-degree murder, it could still choose manslaughter, which doesn't require premeditation. But watch closely. If Tampa history is instructive, this one won't resolve itself easily.

Twenty years ago, in March 1983, a white man, John Wade Carter, was so enraged to see two black men drinking coffee in a restaurant with two white women that he chased the black men down the interstate and shot them. One, Wayne Raines, was killed.

It took two trials to convict Carter. The best the all-white jury could come up with the second time was second-degree murder, not first. The death of a black man was not that big of a deal.

This is what worries people such as Curtiss Wilson. "If there's no conviction of second-degree murder, I'm going to be hurt," she said. "I'm going to be very hurt."

Multiply that hurt by a tight-knit church and a big fraternity, by whole neighborhoods, and you see what's at stake in Fla. v. Puryear. More than a dentist is on trial here. A community's belief in the system that claims to protect it is being tested.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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