It still gets people talking in 21st century America when a white man with money gets convicted for murdering a black victim. But what was even more notable than the racial overtones in Tampa's Randy Puryear case was the business-like way the jury approached the question of guilt. From the start, one of its members said, the all-white jury was inclined to convict the white dentist for shooting to death Jemale Wells, a 39-year-old black man. This case inspires confidence in the ability of jurors to do their job.
The jury deliberated four hours before convicting Puryear of second-degree murder in Wells' shooting death two years ago. The 42-year-old dentist faces from 25 years to life in prison. The state said Puryear confronted Wells with a .357-caliber Magnum after Wells had a confrontation with Puryear's girlfriend. The state and the defense dispute how the gun went off, and differ on whether Puryear taunted Wells with racial epithets. But the bottom line for the jury, one member said, was that Puryear was "the only one in control of that gun" and that "Dr. Puryear pulled that trigger."
Wells' family looked for justice, while members of Tampa's black community looked for signs the state would vigorously prosecute the case. But inside the courtroom a larger drama played out _ a white professional who, with the help of a prominent attorney and two experts from O.J. Simpson's "Dream Team," tried to counter the picture of him as a hothead, a man "ticked off," the prosecutor said, "full of testosterone" and enraged about his girlfriend's treatment. And why the gun? Why did Puryear escalate the confrontation, rather than simply leave the scene?
Jurors understand that fear, anger and humiliation are powerful emotions because they, too, live in the everyday world, where small miscalculations bring tragedy. It's unclear whether this case says much about race or money; maybe it reflects an understanding of human behavior that transcends those more superficial divides. Justice isn't always blind, but in this case there was no wink and nod from the jury.