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Brandon Miller and the murder case clouding March Madness, explained

Alabama’s Brandon Miller leads the Crimson Tide in scoring at 19.6 points per game and adds 8.2 rebounds per game.  (Tribune News Service)
By Timothy Bella and Des Bieler Washington Post

As the men’s college basketball season heads toward the start of the NCAA Tournament, one thing has become clear to players, coaches, pundits and fans who catching up before they fill out their brackets: It’s Brandon Miller’s year.

The standout freshman guard is considered one of the best college basketball players in the country and the go-to guy for an Alabama Crimson Tide team that will likely be a No. 1 seed and look for its first Final Four in school history. Miller is projected to be a top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft.

But the 20-year-old phenom has faced questions in recent weeks after he was linked in court to a fatal shooting of a woman in downtown Tuscaloosa in January. A detective with the Tuscaloosa police department testified last month that Miller delivered a gun to then-teammate Darius Miles, who then handed the firearm to Michael Lynn Davis, a friend of Miles’ who is not associated with the university. Police say Davis shot into a vehicle and killed 23-year-old Jamea Jonae Harris on Jan. 15. Miles, 21, and Davis, 20, have been charged with capital murder.

Miller has not been charged, is not considered a suspect and has been a cooperating witness to police, according to the university, which has faced heavy blowback for taking no disciplinary action against the freshman. Jim Standridge, Miller’s attorney, has denied the claims, saying in a statement that his client does not own a gun and “never touched the gun” used in the killing. Miller spoke for the first time about the shooting on Wednesday, saying it was “really heartbreaking.”

Before March Madness gets underway, here’s what to know about one of college basketball’s finest players and his link to an ongoing capital murder case:

Who is Brandon Miller?

Raised in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, Miller is the youngest of three siblings in a family that’s prided itself on athletics. His dad, Darrell Miller Sr., played tight end for Alabama’s football team in the early 1990s, and his siblings, Darrell Sr. and Brittany, played college basketball in Tennessee.

Yet, it was Miller who arguably shined the brightest, not just in basketball but also baseball. “He could throw. Fastball, knuckleball, curveball, all of that,” Miller Sr. told the Crimson White, Alabama’s student newspaper, in December. “It was unbelievable what he could throw. I was like, man, he’s probably going to be a baseball player.”

But Miller’s love for basketball grew during the early stages of the pandemic. He got up early to balance his workouts and virtual classes, said Marlin Simms, his coach at Cane Ridge High School.

“He really started to realize how great he could be,” Simms told the student newspaper. “Where some kids I think it hurt, COVID helped Brandon.”

The 6-foot-9 wing transformed himself into a five-star recruit, McDonald’s all-American and a back-to-back winner of Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year honors during his junior and senior seasons at Cane Ridge.

Miller, who is widely expected to declare for the NBA draft after one season at Alabama, has delivered for the Crimson Tide, leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring with nearly 20 points a game. He is also the first SEC player to win both player and freshman of the year honors since 2012.

Who are Darius Miles, Michael Lynn Davis and Jamea Jonae Harris?

Miles starred at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., as a 6-6 forward and played on a postgraduate team at IMG Academy in Florida. While the top-200 prospect received offers from schools such as Georgetown, Rutgers and Rhode Island, he signed with Alabama to round out its 2020 recruiting class. Before the start of this season, Alabama head coach Nate Oats expressed optimism that the junior could grow to become a leader.

Davis is a native of Charles County, Maryland, who has been living and working in Alabama, his attorney told local media. Attorney John Robbins, who represents Davis, described his client to as “a good person from a good family.”

Harris was working overnights at Amazon so that she could raise and provide for her 5-year-old son, Kaine. She and her son lived with her mother, DeCarla Heard, in Birmingham. Harris, a graduate of Wenonah High in Birmingham, had decided to make the roughly 50-mile trip with her boyfriend to Tuscaloosa in January to visit her cousin, who attends Alabama.

“I was still raising her. She was still a baby – she was still learning about life and how to take care of a family,” Heard told in January. “She was an investment for me.”

What allegedly happened on Jan. 15?

Shortly after Miller scored 31 points in Alabama’s blowout of LSU on Jan. 14, Miles asked the star for a ride to The Strip, Tuscaloosa’s entertainment district, Standridge said in a statement. As they drove to Twelve25 Sports Bar, Miles had on him his “legal handgun” and left it in Miller’s vehicle, the attorney said in a statement, adding that Miller “never saw the handgun or handled it.”

The teammates went their separate ways, but Miller returned to the bar to pick up Miles. At around midnight, Harris and her boyfriend, Cedric Johnson, were approached by Miles as they were dancing by their vehicle, according to prosecutors. When Johnson told the Alabama player that Harris was not interested in him, tensions were heightened after Miles allegedly responded, “You don’t know who I am and what I do.”

What happened next in the narrative has been a point of dispute for weeks. Branden Culpepper of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit testified that after Miles texted Miller, the star prospect brought Miles’ gun to the scene in the early morning hours of Jan. 15, the Tuscaloosa News reported. Not long after Miller arrived in his car, Miles and Davis got in the back seat of the vehicle, according to testimony. Miles then allegedly said of the gun, “There’s one in the head,” meaning a round was loaded in the chamber.

Standridge said Miller did not know any of the context surrounding the conflict between Miles and Johnson, and had no idea that illegal activity was going to occur. The attorney added that Miller did not know Miles had left the handgun in the back seat of Miller’s car.

“Mr. Miles texted Brandon and asked him to bring him his firearm,” Standridge said in a statement. “Brandon subsequently arrived at the scene to pick up Mr. Miles.”

Law enforcement testified last month that vehicles belonging to Miller and Alabama guard Jaden Bradley had been parked and were blocking the road where Harris’ vehicle was parked at the time. The testimony was supported by Heard, Harris’s mother, in local media, but Standridge has rejected the claim in his statement.

Prosecutors say Davis grabbed the gun from Miller’s vehicle at around 1:45 a.m. and fired into the vehicle, killing Harris. Video evidence shows that gunfire was exchanged and that Miller’s car was struck by two bullets, according to an ESPN investigation.

Hours later, Miles and Davis were charged with capital murder. If convicted, they face up to life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Neither Miller nor Bradley were charged or face possible charges.

What has unfolded since then?

When Culpepper testified on Feb. 21 that Miller had delivered the gun used in the fatal shooting, Oats and the university were quick to note that the athletics department had “known the situation” involving the investigation, and that Miller was in the “wrong spot at the wrong time.” Oats later apologized after his remarks about how the coach “can’t control everything everybody does outside of practice” appeared to downplay the seriousness of the situation.

The story surrounding Miller’s link to the case intensified afterward. In a road game at South Carolina, Miller was booed by opposing fans and faced occasional chants of “lock him up.” He responded by scoring a career-high 41 points and hitting the winner.

Before the Feb. 25 game against Arkansas, a viral video showed Miller getting patted down by a teammate during pregame introductions. Oats said that while the pregame ritual was something Miller had done all year, the coach apologized and said he “felt awful” about how it looked.

On Wednesday, the athletics department made Miller available to reporters for the first time since the detective’s testimony in February. As Alabama is fighting for the top overall seed in the tournament – and remains one of the betting favorites to win the national championship, according to FanDuel – Miller did not say much, but acknowledged he’s heard all of the chants from opposing fans who don’t think it’s right that he’s still playing.

He also made it clear that what happened nearly two months ago, a killing with questions still left unanswered, is far bigger than basketball.

“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.”