Tracing the night Jamea Harris died

Ethel Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — DeCarla Heard was playing a game in the living room with her grandson when her daughter, Jamea Harris, accidentally FaceTimed her. It was around 8 p.m. on Jan. 14, a Saturday, and Harris was in her car heading to a night out with friends near the University of Alabama campus.

It had been a long day for Harris, a 23-year-old mom who worked nights, and she wanted to unwind. She left her son with her mom and headed from their Birmingham home to Tuscaloosa to spend time with friends.

Harris quickly realized she’d inadvertently dialed her mom, but, like always, her 5-year-old son Kaine pulled her in, so she didn’t hang up.

“Hey,” Harris asked her mom, “what are y’all doing?”

Kaine was cheating at Connect 4, and they had a good laugh about it. He always had to win.

“Tell him to come to the phone,” Harris told her mom, and Kaine danced over to see Harris on the screen. She told him he was being silly, then Kaine ran back to his game.

“I love you,” Heard told her daughter before they hung up.

Heard couldn’t sleep that night and wasn’t sure why. She tossed and turned, and then she heard a knock at 7 a.m. She nervously ran to the door and saw police officers. They told her she needed to call the Tuscaloosa police department. The officers waited there with her, but by then, Heard already knew.

“Don’t tell me she’s dead!” Heard said. “Don’t tell me she’s dead!”

THE STORY OF Jamea Harris’ death starts as Tuscaloosa celebrated the No. 4 Alabama men’s basketball team’s 106-66 throttling of LSU. Young people headed out for a Saturday night on The Strip, a stretch of University Boulevard near Bryant-Denny Stadium known for its dining and nightlife, and two separate groups converged while waiting in line to get into a crowded bar before midnight. One group included Harris, her boyfriend and her cousin. The other group included several members of the Alabama men’s basketball team.

By the time the sun came up on Sunday morning, Harris’ son had lost his mother, fatally shot in the passenger seat of her Jeep parked just off The Strip. Later that day, a member of the men’s basketball team and his childhood friend were arrested in connection with the shooting. By the end of the day, the parents of those two men learned that their sons had been charged with capital murder.

Alabama quickly dismissed the player, injured backup Darius Miles, after he and Michael Lynn Davis of Charles County, Maryland, were booked into Tuscaloosa County Jail on Sunday evening. Alabama coach Nate Oats met with his team that night, and the next day briefly spoke with reporters. He called it an “incredibly sad situation,” and offered “thoughts and prayers” to the family and friends of Harris. Asked whether other players were involved, he cited the ongoing investigation and said the rest of the team would travel to Nashville, Tennessee, and be available to play the following day.

In the weeks after, the Crimson Tide played well behind freshman Brandon Miller, the team’s best player and a projected NBA lottery pick. But then Alabama became the center of national attention in ways not seen before. During a Feb. 21 hearing related to the shooting, a police investigator testified that Miller had brought the handgun to Miles the night of the shooting and that Miles had texted Miller and asked him to do so. Miller had been with Miles earlier in the night, but left to go to a restaurant, his attorney said, when the line to the bar got too long. By the time Miles texted Miller about the gun, his attorney said, Miller already was returning to pick Miles up.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have presented conflicting interpretations of events that night. Police said members of both groups visited a bar on The Strip and later, on a nearby street, got into a minor altercation. Gunshots later were exchanged between Davis and Harris’ boyfriend. Harris was struck in the face and killed. Police said Miles “aided and abetted” Davis in the killing of Harris, and that Miles admitted to providing Davis the gun immediately before the shooting. Police testified that Davis fired first. A defense attorney raised questions about whether Harris’ boyfriend had fired first and suggested that the two men who had been charged with capital murder were acting in a defensive manner.

Miller’s car windshield was struck by two bullets during the exchange of gunfire, according to police. He and another Alabama player on the scene that night, Jaden Bradley, were not charged. The case was sent to a grand jury. Oats said his program was “fully cooperating” with law enforcement. Still, Oats’ and the university’s decision to let Miller continue to play sparked outcry from critics as the team marched onward to capture the top seed in the SEC tournament, which began this week.

ESPN has sought comment from the Alabama players on the scene that night, but the university had not made players available the past two weeks, until Wednesday. Based on documents and court testimony obtained by ESPN, a review of video footage, interviews with business operators along The Strip and interviews with family members of Harris and the men charged with capital murder, ESPN has learned new details about what happened that night and specific elements of the timeline of events leading up to the shooting — and how a multitude of lives were irrevocably changed.

The story of Jamea Harris’ death is also about what members of the Alabama men’s basketball team and her acquaintances did that night leading up to the shooting, and how it all collided in a tragic span of eight minutes.

MILES SAT ON the bench and didn’t suit up that afternoon while his mom and stepdad cheered on the team at Coleman Coliseum. Earlier that day, Alabama announced that Miles was out for the season with an ankle injury.

He originally injured the ankle in the preseason, then rehabbed and played limited minutes. He hadn’t played since Dec. 20, and went home to suburban Washington, D.C., shortly after, for what Alabama coaches called “personal reasons.”

In an interview with ESPN, Miles’ mother, Tracy Harris, said her son broke down from the pressure of school, practice, an illness and injury. Miles had dreamed of playing in the NBA and pushed to be the player he thought the team needed him to be.

“He just crashed,” she said.

But after his trip home, she said, he seemed recharged and focused. In some ways, getting shut down for the season was a relief for Miles. It gave him time to heal and focus on the spring semester.

The night of Jan. 14 was supposed to be the last day in town for Harris and her husband, Dwight, Miles’ step-father. Miles arrived at Half Shell Oyster House to meet them for dinner.

Davis, a close friend of Miles’ since middle school, knew the family well and joined them. Davis grew up in Landover, Maryland, and dreamed of playing in the NFL. His Hudl page is filled with highlights of a young defensive back trying to get recruited. Senior year, he committed to McDaniel College, a Division III school in Westminster, Maryland, and was set to go, then COVID-19 hit, and they didn’t play football. His mother, Annie Davis, said Michael had a “change of heart” about college after that and worked fast food and construction. He didn’t like any of it.

“Nothing was happening,” she said. “And I constantly said, ‘We’ve gotta do something, we just can’t lay around the house. We’ve gotta do something positive.'”

In September 2021, prosecutors in Charles County, Maryland, charged Davis with five misdemeanors, including four involving illegal possession of a handgun. Davis was 19. He accepted a disposition available in Maryland that essentially puts the case on hold for a certain time period as long as the defendant meets certain conditions, and if met, makes the charges eligible to be expunged. It’s unclear whether his charges in Alabama will have an effect on the Maryland case.

Annie Davis said she hates guns, and that a friend of Michael’s was killed by gun violence. One time, during a conversation with her son, she questioned the need for people to have guns. He told her that nobody fights with their hands anymore.

In February 2022, Annie Davis said her son decided to follow Miles to Tuscaloosa for a new beginning. He went there, Davis’ mother said, to figure out whether he wanted to go to college. He moved in with Miles and got a job on the event staff at Alabama. A person at Andy Frain Services, Inc., which provides security and event staff services for Alabama, told ESPN that Davis hadn’t worked for the company since Dec. 3. Steven Gonzalez, associate director of communications at the school, said Davis “has never been employed by the University of Alabama” but confirmed that Davis had worked for Frain.

Miles’ parents didn’t find out that Davis had moved to Alabama until they visited Tuscaloosa months later. Miles’ mother told her son she didn’t think it was a good idea that Davis lived with him. She knew Miles’ nature, that he might be distracted by a natural desire to help Davis. Even so, it’s clear the family had an affection for Davis, whom they referred to by his nickname, “Buzz.”

“Darius’ exact words were [that] Alabama provided him with the opportunity for him to get to know people and better himself,” Tracy Harris said. “He wanted to provide the same opportunities for Mike.”

After dinner, Dwight and Tracy gave Miles and Davis a ride home in their small car. Miles maneuvered his 6-foot-7 body into the back and smashed inside with Davis. When they reached their apartment, Dwight gave his stepson a hug and told him he loved him.

“Have fun,” Dwight said, “but be safe.”

A FEW HOURS later, Miles, Bradley and Miller headed toward The Strip. They arrived shortly before 11:30 p.m., parked in an alley behind the Houndstooth sports bar and joined a line of people waiting to get into Twelve25, a packed bar/restaurant across the street.

The description of events that led to the shooting is based on court testimony and video reviewed by ESPN, as well as interviews with business operators and other people on The Strip that night. Miles was at the back of the line with Bradley and Miller. With the line almost spilling onto the street, Miller decided it was too long, his attorney Jim Standridge said in a statement, so he left and went to a restaurant.

A nearby bar owner noticed that there was more loitering than usual that Saturday. Typically, he told ESPN, police will tell people to go in a place or that they need to leave. But the lines persisted on a chilly night with temperatures dipping into the 30s.

Jamea Harris, known as a fun, free-spirited woman who made friends easily, was in the line for Twelve25 with her boyfriend Cedric Johnson and cousin Asia Humphrey, a student at Alabama. Humphrey and Harris, separated by a few months, were close friends. When they were kids, they talked about opening a clothing store together.

Around midnight, Harris wound up close to Miles’ group in line at Twelve25, but they didn’t appear to interact. Video shows Humphrey apparently bumped into Bradley a couple of times with no acknowledgement from either side.

At 12:08 a.m., Miles and Bradley entered Twelve25. Davis, already inside, saw them as they entered the packed bar and started jumping to get their attention. Six minutes later, Harris, Johnson and Humphrey went inside. In testimony from the Feb. 21 hearing, Humphrey said she and Harris and their friends stayed at Twelve25 for an hour or two, and that there were no problems. Police testified there was no indication of interaction between the groups inside Twelve25.

Harris and her friends left the bar and stopped at a food shack across the street. Johnson and another friend waited for the order, Humphrey said, while she and Harris went back to the Jeep. With Humphrey driving, they moved the Jeep down an alley behind the Houndstooth parking lot, made a right on Grace Street and stopped at the corner of University and Grace to wait for Harris’ boyfriend.

At 1:02 a.m., Miles texted Miller asking when he could pick him up. At 1:10 a.m., according to testimony, Miles texted Miller, “How long u goin be.”

At 1:36 a.m., Davis, Miles and Bradley left Twelve25 and walked across the street. Miles was ahead of them, fiddling with the hood on his jacket, and walked past Harris’ Jeep on Grace Street.

Davis stopped at the Jeep and began dancing, and according to court testimony, later told investigators he was “drunk off tequila.” Bradley was standing a few feet behind him.

Johnson told police that during their initial interaction, he told Davis he was Harris’ boyfriend and to “move along.” Johnson said Davis responded, “Well, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know what I do to you.” Humphrey testified she heard Johnson say, “Brother, why don’t you be good,” and the only thing she heard was Davis saying, “I don’t want your girl.” Miles returned to the Jeep, and Miles’ attorney said during the hearing that “Jaden Bradley is the one that says Darius Miles tried to calm the situation down, got [Davis] to go.” Humphrey testified she didn’t hear Miles say anything to anyone in the Jeep.

Police testified that during the interaction, either Harris or Humphrey passed something to Johnson in the back seat. Johnson told police it was food. Miles told police he saw a gun.

At 1:38 a.m., police testified, Miles texted Miller again, asking him to bring Miles’ gun — that some guys were “faking.” Miles’ lawyer, Mary Turner, said during the hearing that she’d looked up a reference to “faking” and that it meant “threatening.” It’s unclear whether Miller saw the text.

Miles’ mother later told ESPN that her son owned the gun for protection, as he once had a gun pulled on him.

Miles’ attorney said in the Feb. 21 hearing that Johnson, upset with Davis’ dancing near the Jeep, got out of the vehicle, crossed the street and talked to three of his friends. Then Johnson, she said, got back into the Jeep and drove with his lights off.

An unrelated fight that had broken out nearby among several women blocked traffic in the area, making it slow going through the corner of University Boulevard and Grace Street. Harris’ Jeep waited in the alley behind the Houndstooth for another car to turn.

At 1:43 a.m., Miller’s car pulled up behind Bradley’s car, and Miles stepped out of Bradley’s car.

Harris’ Jeep made a left on Grace Street, away from the fight among the women in the alley and street. The Jeep turned around, lights still off, and pulled up behind Miller’s car.

Miles then walked back to Miller’s car and opened the right-side passenger door — with Davis on the left — and rummaged through clothes. According to court testimony, Davis and Miles had an exchange in which one told the other, “The heat is in the hat,” and then, “Is there one in the head,” meaning, was it loaded?

Standridge said Miller never left his vehicle, never touched the gun and had no idea illegal activity would occur. He cooperated with police fully, Standridge said, and Tuscaloosa Chief Assistant District Attorney Paula Whitley told the day of the preliminary hearing there was nothing Miller could be charged with.

Miles walked over to his girlfriend and moved her and her friend into the alley behind the Houndstooth parking lot. He stopped at both Bradley’s and Miller’s cars and then walked down Grace Street, his hood up as he went by the passenger side of the black Jeep, and then his hood down after.

At 1:45 a.m., Davis walked back onto Grace Street and to the driver’s side of the black Jeep, which was still sitting behind Miller’s car with the lights off. Almost immediately after Davis approached the driver’s side of the car, the first shot was fired.

Tuscaloosa police investigator Branden Culpepper testified at the Feb. 21 hearing that Davis fired first into the Jeep and that Cedric Johnson returned fire once Davis started shooting into the Jeep.

Video reviewed by ESPN appears to show Davis falling backward before two shots are fired from the Jeep. According to court testimony, Davis was shot in the shoulder.

At the first sound of shots, Bradley’s car sped off.

“[I] see everyone scattering,” a person at the scene said, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity. “And just kind of ran back across the street.”

Video shows Davis running across Grace Street and into the alley behind the Houndstooth, firing his gun into the black Jeep. Bullets also hit the windshield of Miller’s car, where there was an unnamed passenger. A photo shows bullet holes in the windshield of Miller’s car — one on the bottom of the driver’s side and one in the middle of the passenger side.

As Davis ran, both Johnson and Miller drove away. It’s unclear where Miller went. Johnson made a left on University Boulevard and stopped at the Walk of Champions in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium, where they encountered police. Harris was dead in the front passenger seat of her Jeep.

Police received multiple 911 calls about the shooting. A 911 call also came from University Downs Apartments. According to testimony, Miles and his girlfriend — in her car — picked up Davis at an intersection and drove back to the apartment. Miles then called 911 to report a gunshot victim, Michael Davis.

When police arrived, Miles, according to court testimony, said he was in his apartment when Davis showed up with a gunshot wound and didn’t know how his friend was injured.

“And then it morphed into they were downtown together,” Culpepper testified. “And then the final story was that he and [his girlfriend were] downtown and picked up Michael after the shooting, but he didn’t see the shooting.”

NOT ALL DETAILS are known about what happened early in the morning of Jan. 15. Cedric Johnson did not appear at the Feb. 21 hearing and could not be reached for comment. Prosecutors have declined ESPN’s interview requests. And the Alabama men’s basketball program had not made players available for questions after the hearing until Wednesday, when Miller and guard Jahvon Quinerly addressed reporters’ questions.

“I never lose sight of the fact that a family has lost one of their loved ones that night,” Miller said. “This whole situation is just really heartbreaking. Respectfully, that’s all I’m going to be able to say on that.”

Lawyers for Davis and Miles have focused on three points within the timeline laid out by prosecutors and police during the preliminary hearing: Miles’ motive for moving his girlfriend away from the area before the shooting; who fired his weapon first between Davis and Johnson; and intent.

Under questioning from prosecutors, Culpepper said Miles moved his girlfriend away from the area that the shooting happened. Miles’ attorney said Miles was moving his girlfriend to keep her from continuing to engage in the fight among a group of women.

During the Feb. 21 hearing and in an interview, a defense attorney raised several questions about who fired the first shot. Davis’ attorney told ESPN his client would pursue a “defense of justification.” Police testified Miles knew what Davis was going to do and that it had been planned out, but the defense argued in testimony that Miles provided Davis the firearm “for protection,” not to shoot anyone.

ON JAN. 15, Tracy and Dwight Harris waited outside the Tuscaloosa County sheriff’s office to see whether they could see or speak with Miles. She said she was told no. They waited for hours that day, and initially, she said, police had told her Miles was cooperating. Harris, a Washington, D.C., police officer for more than two decades, used to tell her son to always be honest with the police. “And that’s what he was doing that day,” she said. “He listened.”

At first, investigators said, he was viewed as a witness. Then, in Tracy Harris’ recollection of the day, she was told the district attorney’s office was deciding whether he would be charged with conspiracy. She said they were told he’d be out soon, but that changed. They were told more evidence arrived. Eventually, police returned and told them Miles would be charged with capital murder. In Alabama, among the factors leading to a capital murder charge is use of a deadly weapon while the victim is in a vehicle.

Tracy and Dwight Harris saw Miles being led out of the sheriff’s office in handcuffs. In a widely displayed online video, Miles was heard saying, “I swear I love you more than you can imagine.” He was talking to his mother.

“That’s not who he is,” his mother said. “The thought of knowing someone else’s child would not see their mom again. A mother would not see her daughter again, and they associated her death [being] at the hands of my child. It’s hell. That’s what that is like.”

That day, Tracy Harris spotted two young people who came out of the sheriff’s office. Desperate for information, she walked over to them. “Can you tell me about a shooting that occurred on The Strip?” she asked. The man wanted to know who she was for before he responded. Tracy Harris looked at the young woman and noticed blood on her shoes and her pants.

She learned later it was Asia Humphrey and Cedric Johnson.

SINCE THE SHOOTING, Humphrey has been taking classes online, according to her aunt. But she was determined to show up and testify for the Feb. 21 hearing at the Tuscaloosa County Jail.

Heard said Humphrey, who did not respond to a call from ESPN, told her she’d sit in that courtroom every time to make sure the people responsible for Jamea Harris’ death are punished. “She was like, ‘I need to speak up for my sister,'” Heard said.

Tracy Harris and Annie Davis testified during the bond portion of the hearing and said they would make sure their sons cooperated with all the bond conditions. But Judge Joanne Jannik denied Miles and Davis bond requests. If indicted, Miles and Davis would have separate trials.

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne told ESPN in a “College GameDay” podcast interview that the decision to allow Miller to continue to play was made in consultation with Oats, university president Dr. Stuart R. Bell, university legal counsel and others at the school. He said Alabama didn’t know of Miles’ text message asking Miller to bring the gun to the scene until police testified to it in the court hearing Feb. 21. Alabama officials also learned that Miller had already been on his way to pick up Miles when the text arrived. Byrne added that Miles had wanted to be picked up for “close to an hour” before Miller made his way over and was “already almost there” when the text arrived. Byrne said that Miller “never left his vehicle and was not involved in the collection of the weapon.”

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, DeCarla Heard picked Jamea Harris’ son, Kaine, up from school when he floored her with a question: “Tell me how my mama died.”

She did not know what to say, and wondered why he randomly asked that. In the days after Harris was killed, Heard waited for the right time to tell him, because there is no right time to tell a 5-year-old his mother is dead. One day, she had to quickly pull him away from the TV when his mom’s picture appeared on the screen, and she grabbed him and did what they call in their house the “Kissy Monster,” and smooched him repeatedly to distract him from the news.

She eventually sat him down on the sofa and told him that his mommy is an angel in heaven, and she’d be with him every day. She told him not to be afraid, because G.G. — that’s what Kaine calls his grandma — will always take care of him.

Heard wonders whether Kaine’s questions came from whispers he’d heard at school: Where was she shot? Why couldn’t they save her?

“Baby, I don’t know,” she told him. “I don’t know what happened. I just know he was a bad guy, and he was angry, and he shot your mom, and they couldn’t save her.”

That next day, she inquired about grief counseling for Kaine. With the help of her husband Kelvin, and friends that seem to call just when she needs it the most, they try to manage.

Kelvin Heard works nights, but he has been going home on his dinner break so he can hug Kaine. Kelvin said the day Kaine asked his grandma how his mom died, he refused to leave her side. “He wanted to protect her,” he said, “in case the bad man tried to hurt her.”

Kelvin is angry that Alabama never called to offer condolences, and that they hollowly invoke Harris’ name as an afterthought. DeCarla tries not to waste her energy on it. She vacillates between sadness and anger but sticks to her singular focus of raising the little boy her daughter can’t.

“They’ve showed me who they are,” she said. “They’re not relevant. I’m not going to make the University of Alabama relevant off my daughter’s name. Her life is just as important, and her potential for her life is just as important as Brandon Miller.”

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