Bama Basketball Shooting: Understanding State's Self-Defense Laws

March 27, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

TUSCALOOSA, AL — New video evidence recently viewed by Patch brought into clearer focus the events of a fatal Jan. 15 shooting in Tuscaloosa that left a young mother dead and two men, including a former University of Alabama basketball player, charged with capital murder.

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As Patch previously reported, extensive security camera footage displays a frame-by-frame account of the shooting death of 23-year-old Jamea Harris, who was allegedly shot by Maryland native Michael Davis with a gun that was owned by Darius Miles — a forward on the Alabama basketball team at the time of the shooting.

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It has been acknowledged by both sides in the case that Alabama basketball freshman standout and reigning SEC Player of the Year Brandon Miller’s Dodge Charger did indeed contain the gun used in the shooting. Miller’s car was struck twice during the gun fight, before trading paint in a minor collision with the black Jeep as the two vehicles tried to leave Grace Street.

By all accounts, Miller has complied with the investigation and has not been named, nor summoned as a witness.

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Still, the circumstances and video evidence raise potential questions of self-defense for both Davis and the other shooter — Harris’ boyfriend Cedric Johnson — who was driving the Jeep during the incident and shot Davis twice. However, all bets for the defense will be off if the state can prove self-defense for Johnson

If self-defense can be proven for Davis, then Miles, according to state law, would face no liability for providing the gun used in the fatal shooting.

Johnson is likely to be the state’s star witness, but witnesses have not corroborated the few statements he gave police in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, while defense attorneys have confirmed to Patch that they’ve yet to be able to locate Johnson and serve him with a subpoena to testify as a witness.

“A defendant doesn’t have to be right,” Shelby County defense attorney Erik Fine told Patch on Tuesday. “They have to be reasonable. … It comes down not to what you know, but what you can prove.”

To better understand the nuances of Alabama’s self-defense and “Stand Your Ground” laws, Tuscaloosa Patch spoke with two experienced defense attorneys not connected in any way to the Jamea Harris capital murder case to gain their perspective and apply their knowledge to the circumstances of this case.

What You Know & What You Can Prove

Tuscaloosa defense attorney Stuart Albea has represented clients in numerous high-profile cases and most recently was able to prove a Tuscaloosa man acted in self-defense after he was accused of murder in the stabbing death of his uncle a few years ago.

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In that case, his client’s uncle reportedly had been using drugs and drinking, before showing up to his home and trying to attack his nephew on his porch. Albea said as the uncle loaded up to throw a punch, his client “poked” his uncle with a knife, resulting in his death.

“The first thing you’ve got to think about is how you are going to prove it was self-defense,” he told Patch on Tuesday. “What are the facts and circumstances? Who all was armed and what did my client reasonably believe? If a three-year-old comes up to you and says ‘I’m going to kill you,’ you’re probably not going to believe it, right?”

In the Jamea Harris case, both Davis and Johnson were armed at the time of the shooting and fair arguments for self-defense, based on evidence read in court and viewed on video by Patch, are likely to be made for both shooters.

John Robbins, the defense attorney for Davis, claims Johnson fired first on his client, while Johnson told police that Davis ran up to the driver’s side window and began firing.

Davis and Miles have both been indicted for capital murder and remain behind bars without bond, while Johnson has not been charged in connection to the case.

Generally speaking, Albea then explained the importance of determining what was “reasonably” going through a client’s mind at the time of a violent incident — namely if they were indeed afraid for their safety, their life or the safety and lives of others.

“Under Alabama law, you don’t necessarily have to be afraid for your own life,” Albea explained. “It’s a common misconception, but if you’re afraid of what Alabama calls Assault 1 or Assault 2, you can use deadly force to defend yourself.”

This would seem to fit the arguments made by both Davis and Johnson, with the outcome likely to be decided by a judge during an immunity hearing or a jury at trial.

While neither of the defense attorneys interviewed by Patch spoke to the specifics of the Jamea Harris case, Albea did explain liability for those who provide the weapon used in a disputed killing — cases like the capital murder charge against Darius Miles.

“If it is a real self-defense type case, there’s no liability for the other person [who provided the weapon],” he said. “There’s a law that says if you’re a felon, you can’t own a firearm and there are basically no exceptions to that. But if someone is threatening you and you pick up a firearm to defend yourself and you put it back down, that’s an exception to that … if [the authorities] believe that’s what happened. And that’s a big ‘if.’ But if I am actually in a self-defense situation and I take someone else’s gun to defend myself, there’s no liability [for the owner].”

According to the current court record and all available evidence, the first time-stamped instance of anyone involved in the fatal shooting expressing fear for their safety is noted when Darius Miles texts Brandon Miller at 1:38 a.m. — roughly 7 minutes before the first shot was fired.

In crucial piece of evidence, Miles tells Miller: “I need my joint a n—- rl just got da fakin” before saying at 1:40 a.m. “Bett we at JB car [Alabama basketball player Jaden Bradley’s car on Grace Street].”

With both sides claiming self-defense in the Jamea Harris case, Albea explained in the general sense the importance of determining which party was the aggressor.

“Under the law, you are not allowed to be the initial aggressor and claim self-defense,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way. If I go up to you, slap you upside the head, then you get mad and point a gun at me, I can’t pull out a gun and shoot you, because then I would be the aggressor.”

Albea then went on to mention Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was passed by the legislature in 2006. This changed the law to no longer require a “duty to retreat” on the part of the individuals or group claiming self-defense.

“That is no longer the case, so that’s a big issue, too,” he said. “You don’t have to avoid it if somebody is trying to attack you, you can stand there and defend yourself with deadly force.”

Shelby County defense attorney Erik Fine is the founder of Patriot Law, Inc., which defends any individuals charged with criminal offenses other than those accused of burning of the American flag. He’s tried cases all over the state, including Tuscaloosa County.

Fine spoke at length about Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” law and provided an easy-to-understand, three-part checklist for determining if the actions during the incident met the criteria for protection under the law.

    “A lot of this is left up to a jury and a lot of these things happen in split seconds, so juries have to make that determination,” he told Patch when explaining the courtroom protocols in a self-defense case. “Judges don’t like to make these kinds of decisions. If there are these types of questions, a judge will turn them over to a jury.”

    If there is extensive video evidence, Fine said, a circuit court judge during an immunity hearing will often look at it and determine if they were at the right place at the right time. Immunity hearings typically occur after an indictment by a grand jury and prior to a jury trial.

    Immunity hearings for Miles and Davis have not yet been held at this point in the litigation, with Miles’ defense attorneys from the Turner Law Group most recently requesting a new bond hearing for their client.

    Still, defense attorneys for Miles confirmed to Patch that the Turner Law Group is actively researching the issue of their client being a “non-triggerman” in the shooting, as well as considering the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

    But Fine said if a judge is presented video or other evidence and determines the answer to be obvious, then they will likely rule in favor of self-defense to spare the parties involved from a long and costly trial.

    “But the minute there is a jury question, there’s going to be a trial,” he said, arguing that if all three of the criteria on his aforementioned checklist are not met, the outcome of the case is likely going to be determined by a jury. “It’s the prosecutor’s job to present the facts and seek justice. If they don’t feel like they’ve got enough facts, then they’re not supposed to bring charges just to appease the public.”

    Fine also said in self-defense cases, the outcome oftentimes comes down to the questions asked of the jury at trial — a sentiment agreed upon by Albea.

    “Anybody can claim self defense, but who really is defending themselves and who is the aggressor is going to be a trial issue,” Albea said. “Somebody is defending themselves or somebody is the aggressor, you can’t be both.”

    Albea then said a strong jury question asked by an attorney at trial is going to be pretty specific, citing his recently won case where his client was alleged to have armed himself with a knife in looking for a fight that eventually resulted in the death of his uncle.

    “To combat that, I was asking questions like ‘who all’s got a gun in their car?’ and follow it up with ‘Just because you have a gun in your car, does that mean you’re looking to kill somebody?'”

    While unfamiliar with most of the details of the Jamea Harris capital murder case, Fine stressed the importance of having an air-tight argument in a potential self-defense case.

    A trial date in the Tuscaloosa case is far from being set, as both sides continue to collect evidence and mull their options. Given the circumstances and facts known at this time, Fine’s words could signal difficulty for both sides in proving who was the aggressor and why, without a jury trial.

    “Tuscaloosa is a pretty tough venue to practice criminal defense in,” Fine said. “If you don’t have all your stuff in line, you’re going to get hammered in Tuscaloosa. In Tuscaloosa and Shelby counties, you better come correct or you’re going to get buried.”

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