URBANA — When Jerry Exum decided to take a gun to a nightclub almost two years ago, he set into motion events that unalterably changed the lives of himself and two others.
Fearful because he had been shot weeks earlier, Exum believed he needed a gun to protect himself.
Instead, he left one man paralyzed and wanting to die, a second feeling the effects of being shot in both legs and himself headed to prison for 34 years.
“This is a profoundly sad case,” Judge Ben Dyer said Friday. “To Mr. Exum’s family, I’m sorry. My heart breaks for you. To Mr. Exum, you have brought everyone here to grief.”
In October, a Champaign County jury convicted the 31-year-old father of six from Champaign of aggravated battery with a firearm for maiming Lester Wells, 33, and the attempted murder of Davonte Wright, 27.
The shootings happened Oct. 5, 2019, outside 51 Main at 1906 W. Bradley Ave., C.
Exum testified that he believed Wells and Wright were threatening him because he spoke with police about his own shooting on Aug. 15 of that year that led to the arrest of an Urbana man.
That man, Gregory J. Smith, 21, is now serving a 14-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in January to aggravated battery with a firearm for shooting Exum three times outside a house party in Champaign.
However, both Wells and Wright testified they did not know Exum and hadn’t heard of Smith. They described Exum as agitated, nervous and aggressive when he approached them in the nightclub parking lot talking about having been shot earlier. They thought he might have been drunk. They said he walked away from them but moments later, began firing.
A friend loaded Wells into a car and drove him to the hospital. Wright made his way into the club and was taken by ambulance for care.
Wells was paralyzed from the waist down and requires constant care. In a written statement for the judge, he described chronic depression and physical pain.
“My life is really something I feel is not worth living,” wrote Wells, who has a girlfriend who cares for him and seven children.
Exum fled but was arrested hours later, questioned by police for two hours, then taken to jail on unrelated traffic warrants. He posted bond and was released. He said he and his family left the area to avoid further retaliation.
Police continued to investigate and developed enough information to charge Exum with the shootings. He was arrested in Indianapolis 10 days later. The gun Exum used had been found about five days after the shootings hidden under an air-conditioning unit at his apartment complex.
At trial, Exum said he and his girlfriend had been threatened about him testifying against Smith for shooting him, prompting him to buy a gun from a man outside a liquor store.
Outside 51 Main on Oct. 5, he was telling a man he was not going to testify against Smith. He claimed he saw a gun in Wright’s pocket and that Wells pulled one out — assertions that both men denied.
Prior to Dyer sentencing him, Exum made a four-and-a-a-half-minute statement in which he apologized to Wells, Wright, their families and his own.
“I come from a family of good character. I take full responsibility for my actions but not the reason for why it happened,” he said.
Dyer had denied a motion for a new trial sought by Bloomington attorney Jennifer Patton. The Exum family fired veteran defense attorney Jim Dedman of Urbana, who represented Exum at trial, and hired Patton, who argued unsuccessfully that Dedman was ineffective.
Exum, who had only traffic convictions in his background, told the judge he did not want to be “just another Black man who fell victim to the system.”
“For the majority of my 31 years, I distanced myself from drugs and gangs,” he said. “I’m asking for a second chance so I can continue to be the father my kids miss, the only son of my mother.”
Exum’s mother wailed aloud from the gallery as he spoke.
“Look at my character, not the color of my skin and the (jail) clothes I’m in and see I am not the usual suspect,” he said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Kristin Alferink called Exum’s case typical of other shooting cases in our community.
“This is a series of unfortunate events. It starts when he is shot and that leads to two others,” she said.
Noting the 16 reference letters written for Exum, Alferink asked why he didn’t reach out to those people for support in the wake of his own shooting.
“Instead, he thought having a gun and taking it to a bar was more appropriate,” she said, recommending a total of 55 years for both crimes.
The minimum Exum could have received was 32 years, the maximum, 80.
Patton argued that Exum was not known to be a violent person, had no felony record, had a college education and had fathered six children.
“He maintains he was threatened. That fear from being shot is why he had the gun, and he accepts responsibility for carrying the gun,” she said.
Asking for the minimum 32 years, she noted he’ll have to serve 85 percent, or about 29 years, a substantial sentence.
Dyer observed that Exum had much going for him but said to give him the minimum for paralyzing Wells would deprecate the seriousness of the crime. He called Wells’ victim-impact statement “jarring.”
“It’s about as severe an injury you can cause without killing someone,” he said.
The judge said Wright was “shot senselessly, something Exum can relate to.”
“This is a totally senseless crime. At the maximum, this should have been a parking-lot scuffle, but he pulled out a gun and shot two people,” Dyer said.
Exum’s case was the first felony trial heard by Dyer, a former public defender who was appointed as a circuit judge in May 2020.