*This is an opinion column*
TUSCALOOSA, AL — It felt like ages waiting on the seventh floor of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse Wednesday as a large crowd of people were ambushed in the hallway by a group of reporters firing off questions and recording video.
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Right outside the slow-moving bank of elevators, family and friends of 23-year-old Birmingham native Jamea Harris waited patiently but, as I reported earlier today, offered little in the way of comment apart from the opinion that it was a fair decision to deny bond to capital murder suspect and former Alabama men’s basketball player Darius Miles.
Nick Kelly of the Tuscaloosa News is one of the most genuine reporters on the beat and one of my favorite writers. Thankfully, he stood back beside me and I leaned over to him to say “this whole scene makes me [expletive] sick.”
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Nevertheless, among the group was Cedric Johnson — the seemingly quiet father of Harris’ child and the man who was driving her Jeep the morning of Jan. 15 when she was shot and killed during a shootout on Grace Street near the Tuscaloosa Strip. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into his slacks and, around his neck, a gold necklace attached to a pendant featuring a photo of Harris and the couple’s son.
Wednesday was the first time Johnson, also a native of Birmingham, had been seen in a Tuscaloosa courtroom since that fateful morning, which also saw him shoot Maryland native Michael Davis twice before a shot was fired that killed Harris.
And it’s worth noting that one social media photo obtained by Patch appears to show Johnson the morning of Jan. 14 in Tuscaloosa, with what looks like the handle of a pistol hanging out of the waistband of the same outfit he can be seen wearing in multiple videos hours later and in the minutes prior the shooting.
Johnson sat directly in front of this reporter, mostly stoic and quiet ahead of the hearing. He also showed little emotion when a seasoned private investigator for the Turner Law Group served him a subpoena in front of the entire courtroom — a complicated task considering the months of documented attempts on the part of the defense for Miles to serve Johnson and get him to testify under oath.
Considering the details of the case, the Turner Law Group has actively tried to get other witnesses served to testify. But Johnson has allegedly been the toughest to track down.
Shu’Bonte Greene is another Birmingham native and friend of Johnson’s who can be traced back to that morning and has been served subpoenas twice by defense attorneys ahead of both the preliminary hearing in February and the latest hearing Wednesday.
As Patch previously reported, though, Greene has an extensive criminal record and is currently behind bars in Jefferson County for felony failure to appear in court and receiving stolen property.
It was also revealed in court on Wednesday that Greene told defense attorneys that one of the men in the Chevy Impala retrieved a shotgun from the trunk of the car in the minutes immediately prior to the fatal shooting on Grace Street.
What’s more, Greene said one of the other two unidentified men in the car with Greene that night has since died of natural causes in the months between the shooting and Wednesday’s hearing.
Turner mentioned the deceased man’s name was Kevon, which Tuscaloosa Patch has yet to independently confirm.
These stood out as just a few of several new developments earlier today, which ultimately saw Miles remain in his orange jailhouse scrubs and shackles. Out in the public, at least in Tuscaloosa, many expressed their disappointment regarding the news that Miles had once again been denied bond given the circumstances of the shooting that have since become public knowledge.
As I reported in March, video evidence viewed by Patch casts serious doubt on the accusations that Miles deliberately aided in a pre-meditated act of violence resulting in the death Jamea Harris, despite the state’s assertions that he — at a minimum — knowingly provided a handgun to be used in the commission of a violent crime.
But, as I’ll reiterate time and again, just don’t think about the fact that the entire series of events, from initial altercation to the fatal shot that killed Jamea Harris, organically developed over the course of less than seven minutes. It’s roughly the same amount of time one takes filling up their car at the service station or standing in line at a bank to deposit a check.
As one friend in the legal community told me, “don’t blink.”
While a quiet minority reserved judgement against the two young men in the immediate aftermath of the charges being handed down, many will recall an overwhelming presumption of guilt from a frothing majority — a notion buttressed by misinformation regarding the events of that night and who, exactly, was responsible.
Indeed, if you’ve followed along with my coverage you will clearly recall my anger regarding an early narrative that Darius Miles shot and killed Jamea Harris because she had rejected his advances.
Never mind that video evidence clearly showed Miles with his girlfriend for most of the night and even working to break up a large fight on Grace Street she was involved in immediately prior to the shooting. If you’re willing to believe it, this wholesale unrelated confrontation provides the clearest insight into why the group of Alabama basketball players were parked on Grace Street that night.
I could teach a master’s course just on the irresponsibility of single-source framing and agenda setting relating to this case. But, thankfully, the basics of the shooting allowed at least some truth to come out in the wash and dumped a bucket of cold water on pundits and the faceless hoards presuming guilt without understanding the evidence available.
Don’t believe me? Just watch the clip below or click here to see it on YouTube. It’s from an out-of-market news outlet, but echoes the earliest narratives around the fatal shooting.
Thankfully, the cesspool of social media and its scores of armchair attorneys have been far-more quiet this go-round than immediately following the preliminary hearing in February.
Still, ignorance abounds as some continue to call for Miles to be convicted of capital murder, while others believe he should be a free man this very second without having the first clue about the evidence that’s been presented.
Indeed, I’ll admit that my knee-jerk reaction in January wasn’t that Darius Miles and Michael Davis shouldn’t have been charged. Rather, I had a hard time making sense of how Cedric Johnson shot someone twice during the shooting and wasn’t the third suspect charged with the other two — again, less than 24 hours after Jamea Harris was pronounced dead.
I take special care to separate my hard news reporting from opinion writing. But each time the digital anger mill ramps up regarding this particular story, I’m reminded of that sleepless night after seeing a wealth of video evidence showing the progression of events that morning.
Not only is it heartbreaking to reckon with the fact that a young mother was killed over a simple late-night spat, but I’ll likely carry with me for the rest of my life a nagging feeling in my gut regarding the possibility that any innocent person could wind up charged with capital murder.
That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a trial to allow for a jury of his peers to determine his guilt or innocence. But after what I saw, coupled with the extensive reporting I’ve done on this story, the narrative is a universe away from the story the media and public were given the evening of Jan. 15 when Michael Davis and a sobbing Darius Miles were paraded down the steps at the sheriff’s office.
And that feeling returned again Wednesday as Turner read more than two-dozen statements from a wide-range of individuals vouching for Miles’ character. Indeed, when Alabama basketball guard Jahvon Quinerly slipped into the courtroom prior to the hearing beginning, every head seemed to turn toward the door and murmurs grew louder among members of the audience.
Turner even fought through tears as she concluded speaking about her client’s character, but not before pointing out a photo of Darius Miles as a kid attempting to comfort his Dad and his basketball team following a loss. More than at any other point thus far in the legal proceedings, Miles appeared human — and, as Turner said, “more than a basketball player.”
But, apart from a couple of surprises, the end result on Wednesday could have easily been predicted, given the serious nature of a capital murder charge.
This spurred plenty of expletives on social media and some accusing Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court Judge Daniel F. Pruet of being an “Auburn judge” — whatever the hell that means.
First off, such a notion is flat-out ridiculous. Whether you agreed with his decision today or not, Judge Pruet, a former defense attorney, is a profoundly decent and empathetic man who knows what it’s like to be seated at that defense table.
After all, few realize how unenviable of a position it is. They just see the robe and the power, while ignoring the weight on those shoulders.
And there’s also likely plenty that you missed that could lend crucial insight into how this case could evolve down the road. Indeed, Pruet spoke directly to Miles in court on Wednesday and praised the hard work of his defense team, even speculating on the possibility of additional evidence working in his favor in the future.
This reporter has covered more murder cases and violent crimes than I can count and Pruet’s words stood out as a genuine acknowledgement of the strong case built by the Turner Law Group.
Indeed, he even said the expedient pace of the case was a direct result of the Turner Law Group’s dedication to their client.
But if I’m being fair, some degree of respect should be offered for the conviction and stoicism shown by the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office and the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit.
District Attorney Hays Webb has said from day-one that he preferred to try the case in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion. To his credit, it’s like walking a high-wire and I have no doubt pure, unadulterated justice is at the front of his mind for this case — regardless of whatever minuscule details I might disagree with.
Like this ink-stained wretch, these public servants have a job to do and, regardless of any criticism I may concoct when interpreting the throes of courtroom theatrics, I have no doubt these prosecutors and investigators are individuals of conviction who want simply to do what’s right.
The fact is, in every court case, there is a winner and a loser. It’s the subatomic nature of the institution and a notion easily overlooked by those watching from the outside.
The legal system is complicated. Like most institutions, there’s nuance, individual subjectivity, well-intentioned mistakes and stupid luck.
And the longer this high-profile case goes, the more the public seems to be having an impact on the actions of all sides involved.
The public high ground, obviously, is occupied by The Turner Law Group after establishing doubt regarding the initial capital murder charge against their client. But think back to the evening of Jan. 15, when Miles and Davis were perp-walked from the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office roughly 15 hours after the first shots were fired.
Then think about the wholesale rushed to judgement by many who wanted both men dragged to the gallows before the sun set on Jan. 15. To hell with the entire series of events from the initial altercation on The Strip to when the first shots were fired.
And never mind that the whole damn thing spanned less than seven minutes.
But then I remember back to how the charges were rolled out. It was opaque and seemed rush, with many more questions compared to the limited context offered.
But for almost two months, the guarded radio silence from the powers that be allowed the rumor mill to churn out scores of speculative stories all geared toward tilting the scales against a former Alabama basketball player.
That’s not the District Attorney’s fault nor is it the fault of any of the courts.
No, our problem here is cultural and can be directly attributed to the attitudes of those living vicariously through social media.
For some, there’s no better feeling than when a public figure gets knocked down a few pegs and disgraced in front of the masses. I’ve seen it ad nauseam at this point, with the tinfoil-hat accusations becoming nothing more than a hobby for unwashed basement dwellers with nothing better to do and pundits whose paychecks come from faceless clicks — real world repercussions be damned.
Hell, even this reporter would wager that the majority of the loudest modern-day troglodytes couldn’t tell you who Michael Davis is, much less the crucial minutia that will be argued in this capital murder case. Never mind he was one of two shooters that fatal night and never mind the other shooter, despite the evidence presented in court, never being charged or considered as a suspect.
Think about: would you have this same reaction, one way or another, if the suspects were some dumb no-name kids from Cottondale, Samantha or The West End? If we’re being honest, most will admit they wouldn’t have given it a passing thought.
At this point, I’ve expended a bunch of words to tell you, the reader, how utterly disappointed I am, not in the judicial system, investigators or defense attorneys, but as it relates to the public and the media at large.
Many reporters today trade ethics for access or disregard all of it for the sole sake of web traffic in this rotted hellscape of a media ecosystem.
So I’ll leave you with this: if Darius Miles ever finds himself a free man again, it will be because of the dogged work of his attorneys and a fair system — not because the media or public gave him a fair shake.
And certainly not because anyone wanted justice for Jamea Harris.
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