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Lack of remorse may have been dentist's undoing

Soon after taking the stand at his murder trial, Dr. Randy Puryear told a football joke.

Before killing an unarmed man on a Sunday afternoon in September 2000, Puryear attended a Bucs game. Asked if anything unusual had happened there, the Town 'N Country dentist replied with a grin.

"Yeah," he said. "We won."

It was cold wit, a moment that encapsulated Puryear's demeanor on the witness stand, where he showed little emotion _ and little sorrow _ about the death of 39-year-old Jemale Wells.

It may explain why jurors concluded that Puryear's account of the shooting couldn't be believed.

"He may have felt bad and remorseful, but by looking at his face you couldn't tell," said Daryl Swims, a member of the six-person, all-white panel that convicted him Tuesday of second-degree murder.

Prosecutors said Puryear, who is white, gunned down Wells, who was black, amid a volley of racial epithets. Puryear was enraged that Wells supposedly pushed his girlfriend after breaking up a scuffle between kids. Puryear said he acted in self-defense, but jurors didn't believe him.

Defense lawyers insisted race had no bearing on the case. But Tampa's black community watched closely as State vs. Puryear wound its way through the justice system for two years, while the dentist remained free on bail to practice.

After so much waiting, the verdict felt especially sweet.

"It was what we had all been looking forward to," said Vivian Heyward, 52, one of the activists who pressured the state to increase the charge against Puryear from manslaughter to second-degree murder.

"We have sat back for a long time," she said. "He has been out for a whole two years. Now he needs to sit there and take his just desserts."

Heyward watched Puryear testify and saw no remorse in his eyes. "He was just steel," she said.

Puryear, who ran a solo practice on Hillsborough Avenue until his trial, is now in a cell at the Hillsborough County jail, awaiting sentencing that will range from 25 years to life. Ed Suarez, his attorney, said the dentist had been badly shaken by the shooting.

"He has sat across from me and cried like a baby," Suarez said recently.

But if Puryear's lawyers hoped to show their client's tender side at trial, his performance on the stand didn't help.

"From a prosecution standpoint, I was stunned by his lack of seriousness as to the nature of the events," said prosecutor Curt Allen. "He made light of it, almost as if he was describing what he was having for lunch the day before."

Having gunned down a black man, Allen said, "He looked (like he was saying), "What's the big deal?' "

Puryear's joke about the Bucs allowed the prosecutor to hammer him with indignation. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Puryear if there was anything funny about a murder case. And he reminded him that Wells' widow, who was watching from the front row, would not be amused.

If Puryear's demeanor was chilly, the defense's most expensive witness, criminologist Henry Lee, resembled a loopy grandfather. His testimony was full of odd digressions and quips.

Asked whether damage to Puryear's sunglasses might have come from a punch, Lee gave the jury a big smile and raised his hand in a chop.

"Could be a karate chop, too," he said. "I used to teach karate. I have a black belt."

Saying he would bill the defense $20,000 for his work in this case, Lee lamented that with the hours he put in, "I'd probably make more money at McDonald's selling hamburgers."

When the defense asked Lee to list his credentials, he gave a litany of high-profile cases but left out what brought him world-wide fame - being a member of O.J. Simpson's defense.

While cross-examining Lee, the prosecutor asked if he failed to mention the Simpson case because the verdict was unpopular. Lee responded that the Simpson case led to great reforms in criminal procedure. And he gave an opinion that drew mutters of disbelief in the courtroom: The Simpson case showed "this country does not have a black and white issue."

"He's an entertainer," the prosecutor said of Lee in his closing argument. "He's on the circuit. He thinks he's on Leno."

Puryear had two of Tampa's best defense lawyers, Ed Suarez and Richard Escobar. He also enlisted a St. Petersburg-based public relations consultant, Robert Sumner, who handed reporters glossy photos of the dentist in jacket and tie as a substitute for his mugshot.

"Had he been acquitted, he still (would have) had a lot of bad publicity, and we would have worked to restore his reputation," Sumner said. The point, he agreed, was now moot.

Puryear will appear before Judge J. Rogers Padgett on Monday for a bond hearing. A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled.

_ Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or goffardsptimes.com.

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