The Program Must Be Protected
9:01 AM EST on March 2, 2023
Jamea Jonae Harris was 23 years old. She had a 5-year-old son, Kaine, who she loved and adored. She was close to her family, and, according to her first cousin Kennedi Henderson, she was the cousin who always pushed the rest of them to be their best.
“She was a humble soul, and she was always a happy soul,’’ Henderson told AL.com. “We literally grew up together.”
She went out one night in January with her boyfriend and another cousin who went to the University of Alabama. A short argument with some men ended with Harris being shot to death. Her mother, DeCarla Cotton, said on Facebook that the shooter took her life "because she wouldn’t talk to him.” She died at the University's Walk of Champions, leading up to Alabama's famed Bryant-Denny Stadium.
This is where much of the public narrative ends about Harris's life. Most of the writing, and the talking, and the broadcasting have been about Alabama basketball. Because two men involved—Darius Miles, who, according to police, owned the gun used to kill Harris, and Brandon Miller, who allegedly brought it to the scene—were members of the Crimson Tide basketball team, and that has enveloped everything about what happened that night, even the very details of Harris's own life. That's what big-time sports do. They overshadow everything—even murder.
Here is what is publicly known so far about what happened in the early hours of Jan. 15, which comes mostly from law enforcement. I also will be relying heavily on local media reporting, mostly from AL.com and the Tuscaloosa News.
On Jan. 14, Alabama announced that junior Darius Miles would be out for the season with an ankle injury. The team had a game that night, a 106-66 conference win over LSU.
Hours later, in the early a.m. of Jan. 15, Miles and a friend, Michael Lynn Davis, 20, of Maryland, were at Twelve25 Sports Bar on the Strip, a busy collection of bars, restaurants, shops, and other businesses just west of Alabama's campus. Miles had been dropped off by a teammate, freshman Brandon Miller, but Miller didn't stay because the line was long, according to testimony given by police, which was reported by AL.com. Jamea Harris was at the bar too, Det. Branden Culpepper testified, along with her boyfriend, Cedric Johnson, and her first cousin, Asia Humphrey. The trio left to get something to eat, where they ran into Davis. He was dancing in front of Harris's black Jeep.
Culpepper testified that "it got a little elevated" and Davis said, "You don't know who I am and what I do."
Miles and Davis walked away, then came back. At this point, per AL.com, two cars belonging to two Alabama players, Miller's Dodge Charger and Jaden Bradley's Dodge Challenger, were blocking the road where the Jeep had been parked. Culpepper testified, per the Tuscaloosa News, that Miles had texted Miller, asking him to bring the gun Miles owned. After Miller arrived, Miles and Davis got in the back seat, and Miles gave Davis the gun.
Davis is accused of walking up to the Jeep, saying "I told you I was going to get you," and opening fire.
Culpepper said police found eight casings at the scene, the News reported. Two bullets struck Miller's Charger. The Jeep's driver, Johnson, returned fire, hitting Davis in the shoulder.
Johnson drove away, stopping at the nearby Walk of Champions, where he spotted and flagged down a university police car. Harris, who had been shot in the face, died there before she could be taken to a local hospital.
In his testimony, Culpepper went into more detail about what police believe happened afterward. Per AL.com, Culpepper said Miles went back to his apartment, where he called 911 and reported that his friend, Davis, had shown up at his home with a bullet wound. This version of events later morphed into Miles telling police that he and his girlfriend picked up Davis downtown, where he had been shot. When police told Miles that everything had been caught on surveillance tape from the nearby Houndstooth Sports Bar, Miles then said he had been there when Harris was murdered, per Culpepper. And when police said they had additional footage from a dash cam on Miller's car, Miles admitted it was him who had contacted Miller about bringing the gun. According to the detective, Miles also "acknowledged moving his girlfriend out of the way before the shooting started."
After Miller's connection to the murder became public, Miller's lawyer issued a lengthy statement saying the player "never touched the gun, was not involved in its exchange to Mr. Davis in any way, and never knew that illegal activity involving the gun would occur.” It added that: “Without Brandon knowing any of this context, and as Brandon was already on the way to pick up Mr. Miles, Mr. Miles texted Brandon and asked him to bring him his firearm. Brandon subsequently arrived at the scene to pick up Mr. Miles.” The statement also said that Miller's car never blocked off the road where the Jeep had parked and Miller “never got out of his vehicle or interacted with anyone in Ms. Harris’s party. He was never involved in a verbal altercation with Cedric Johnson or Mr. Davis.” Neither Miller nor Bradley have been charged with any crime.
Both Miles and Davis are charged with capital murder and are being held in a local jail without bail.
In the ensuing weeks, reporters have asked Alabama men's basketball coach Nate Oats many questions, which would be expected. His answers have revealed a man who sees everything in basketball terms. Take his January interview on the Crimson Tide Sports Network, ahead of a game, in which Oats listed the men he had reached out to for advice on how to deal with this scandal and name-dropped Ray Lewis—the NFL Hall of Famer who was charged with two counts of murder, but later struck a plea deal with prosecutors to testify in exchange for the much lesser charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Lewis also has a daughter who went to Alabama.
Oats described Lewis, per the Tuscaloosa News, as a man who "has been through a tragic situation." He said the former NFL player told him to pray with his players.
In February, when Miller's name was first connected to the murder weapon, Oats declared that Miller had been in the "wrong spot at the wrong time."
Hours later, Oats apologized, and said that the university had been told by police that any other athletes at the scene were witnesses, not suspects, plus "our understanding is that they have all been fully truthful and cooperative." He added that "in no way did I intend to downplay the seriousness of this situation or the tragedy of that night" and closed by sending prayers to the Harris family. In a later press conference, Oats said he didn't have all the information when he first spoke and "used a poor choice of words, making it appear like I wasn’t taking this tragic situation seriously, which we have throughout the course of it."
The same day as the Oats apology press conference, Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne—sans Oats—appeared on ESPN's College Gameday podcast to explain the university's actions. This is not something athletic directors typically do. The faces of a college sports program are its coaches and its players; athletic directors are very powerful, but they generally wield their power behind the scenes and away from the press.
Byrne said that university leadership had been in contact with police since the beginning and was cooperating and not interfering with the investigation. To what Oats said about wrong spot, wrong time, Byrne said that the coach hadn't been briefed on what was said in court that day. But he conceded that Oats "did not handle that in a way that he should have," adding, "we've addressed that with him."
The university decided "collectively" to let Miller keep playing, Byrne said, and those conversations included him, Oats, the university president, and their legal counsel. When asked if Miller had shown any remorse, Byrne replied: "I know Brandon. I like Brandon. I've been around him quite a bit. Obviously, this has been very tough on him, and his teammates, everybody, obviously, victim and her family. So he certainly has has had a lot of emotion through this, as you'd expect."
Asked if Miller was still playing because of his talent level, Byrne responded: "I think that's a fair narrative that people can immediately go to. What I have tried to think about this entire time is: Let's do what we think is right. Let's make sure we are honest, let's make sure that we cooperate—that we support—law enforcement and anybody else out there that needs to be supported through this. And, you know, you can control what you can control. I can't control whether somebody immediately goes to that as their thought on this. What I felt is that Brandon needed to be treated fairly like any other student-athlete, what should be that's here at the University of Alabama. That's what's been driving us through that, whether it was whether it was him or whether it was a student-athlete on any other team."
Byrne said that Miller's status with the team could change if they received new information.
And then the pat-down happened.
During the Crimson Tide's players introductions on Saturday, each starter did a specific handshake with a walk-on. According to Nick Alvarez of AL.com, this had been done before every Alabama home game this season, but doing it even after Miller's name came up in connection with the shooting reignited questions about why Miller was playing and why the introduction, which appeared to make light of a series of a events in which a young mother died, was allowed to happen. Oats said afterward that he didn't know about the introduction because when those are going on he's drawing up plays, but "it definitely will not happen again for the remainder of this year.” He clarified that his players told him the pat-down was "like when TSA checks you before you get on a plane."
Today, Miller is still with the team. He has not been charged with a crime and is exercising his right to an attorney, an important right every person should use. Those are among the reasons why he is playing. But he is also quite talented. Miller is the fastest freshman in Alabama history to reach 500 points, setting the mark against rival Georgia. Second-ranked Alabama—historically a football school—just won the SEC and is a likely No. 1 seed in the upcoming Tournament. Miller's a likely NBA lottery pick. And these are also among the reasons why he plays. It's easy to bench a marginal talent; it's harder to tell the boosters and the fans and the many businesses that rely on excitement around 'Bama athletics that March Madness takes a backseat to anything. Or anyone.
“It’s just unimaginable, and it’s like his life is just going on,’’ Harris's mother, DeCarla Cotton, told USA Today. “He took a brief pause and it didn’t stop. It’s like, OK, slap on the wrist and go play ball."
AL.com columnist Joseph Goodman wrote a column last week after speaking with Harris's stepfather, Kelvin Heard. Heard spared nothing when speaking about Oats and how the coach seemed to perpetually say and do the exactly wrong thing so many times over. He noted that Oats apparently had time to call Ray Lewis for advice, but had yet to call Harris's mother. He said his family no longer wanted the Alabama team's thoughts and prayers.
“This season is stained in Jamea’s blood,” Heard said. “After what this coach said, for us as a family, this season is stained in the blood of Jamea Harris and it’s not ever washing out. Coach Oats crossed the line. He said they prayed at practice. They weren’t praying for Jamea. They were praying for their own players.”
Heard's words are a jarring reminder of the reality, of the loss. This is true in every homicide. It's easy, for those outside looking in, to get lost in the process of investigating and charging and blaming and reporting to remember that a person has died. A family has lost their sister, their daughter, their cousin, their mother. Nothing will bring Harris back. Nothing will make all the pain go away. No answer will feel sufficient. There is nothing Alabama can do to make this right, and yet Oats and those above and around him seem disinclined to even try. Instead, 'Bama will roll forward, into March, insisting there is nothing to see here, while it's left for Harris's grieving family to explain to explain to young Kaine why momma isn't coming home.
“‘Momma is an angel now.’ He said that yesterday,” Heard told Goodman. “He’s learning about MLK in school, and he said momma is now in heaven with MLK.”