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Dentist convicted of second-degree murder

Two years after he pulled out a .357-caliber Magnum in a neighborhood spat, Town 'N Country dentist Randy Puryear was found guilty Tuesday of second-degree murder in the death of an unarmed father of two.

Puryear has been free on bail and practicing dentistry since the shooting of 39-year-old Jemale Wells. That ended Tuesday evening when bailiffs clicked chains on his wrists and legs and stripped him of his dress shirt and jacket.

The jury deliberated about four hours before convicting Puryear, who must serve at least 25 years and could face up to life in prison. Puryear, 42, listened stone-faced as the verdict was read. It was the same expression he wore throughout the 2{-week trial.

Nora Wells, the victim's widow who watched the trial from the front bench of the gallery, called the verdict just.

"This doesn't bring my husband back," she said. "It doesn't bring my children's father back."

The jury leaned toward guilt from the beginning of their deliberations, said Daryl Swims, 36, one of the jurors.

"After we went through all that evidence, we came to the conclusion Dr. Puryear pulled that trigger," Swims said. "As far as we knew, Dr. Puryear was the only one in control of that gun."

Swims said he didn't buy Puryear's claim that he blacked out when the gun discharged.

"I don't think he blacked out," Swims said. "It's a .357 Magnum. When it goes off, you hear it."

Prosecutors said Jemale Wells was a neighborhood peacemaker who paid with his life for breaking up a fight and trying to disarm a gunman. The defense portrayed Wells as an "enraged, crazy, drunken man" who instigated the scuffle that ended in his death.

On Sept. 10, 2000, a sunny Sunday afternoon, Wells stopped a tussle between neighborhood kids in the cul-de-sac outside his Countryway home.

A boy complained to his mother, Sherri Toney, that Wells manhandled him while shooing him from the area. Toney got in a spat with Wells and then summoned her boyfriend, Randy Puryear, to the scene.

It is undisputed that Puryear pulled into Wells' neighborhood in his Chrysler Sebring with a .357-caliber Magnum. But then accounts diverge dramatically.

State witnesses said Puryear, who is white, called Wells, who is black, a "f------ n-----." Puryear said he doesn't remember saying it.

State witnesses said Puryear menaced Wells with the handgun without provocation. Puryear said he pulled his gun only after Wells knocked him to the ground with a punch and tried to kick him.

"Thank God for that gun, because Dr. Puryear would be a vegetable or dead right now," said Ed Suarez, his attorney. "Thank God for that gun, because it saved his life."

Witnesses agree that Wells charged Puryear to disarm him, but they disagree on whether their struggle took place on foot or on the ground.

Defense lawyers spent $33,500 for the services of two members of the O.J. Simpson "dream team" _ forensic pathologist Michael Baden and criminologist Henry Lee. They testified the struggle likely took place on the ground.

In his closing argument Tuesday, prosecutor Curt Allen derided them as "O.J. experts flown in from all over the country." He said they tailored their testimony to the defense's needs.

The prosecutor said Puryear raced to the scene "full of testosterone," enraged that his girlfriend had been handled by a black man.

"He went there ticked off," the prosecutor said. "It escalated because of his gun, because of his slurs."

Even as the confrontation grew heated, the prosecutor said, Puryear had numerous chances to leave.

But as Puryear paced back and forth with his gun, the prosecutor said, Wells feared for the safety of his family nearby. Wells, a former Army officer, charged the gun.

The prosecutor also attacked Puryear's claim that he didn't remember making racial slurs and didn't recall the moment the gun discharged.

"He just all of a sudden conveniently blacks out, so he can't tell you what occurred," the prosecutor said.

The defense stressed that detectives found no gunshot residue on Puryear's hands, but the state maintained it could easily have rubbed off.

Members of Tampa's black community, for whom State vs. Puryear was one of the most troubling cases in recent memory, packed the courtroom during the trial. Soon after the shooting, Puryear was charged with manslaughter, but the then-state attorney upgraded it to second-degree murder after a flood of protest.

Along with the second-degree murder charge, the all-white jury of five women and one man convicted Puryear of a single count of carrying a concealed firearm, as well as two counts of aggravated assault for waving his gun at Wells' neighbors.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.