HOUSTON — It was a face that haunted many people in the nation’s fourth-largest city: The police sketch of the unshaven white man who witnesses and the authorities said had opened fire on a black family in a car the day before New Year’s Eve.
A second grader riding in the car with her mother and three sisters — Jazmine Barnes, 7 — was shot and killed. And the man in the sketch — thinly built, in his 30s or 40s, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, driving a red pickup — became the focal point of what appeared to be a racially motivated shooting that rattled black residents, elected officials and civil-rights activists in Houston and around the country.
“Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be — a hate crime,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, told hundreds of people at a rally last week near the site of the killing.
But it has turned out far differently.
On Sunday, the authorities charged a suspect with capital murder who is not the man in the sketch. He is a 20-year-old African-American man named Eric Black Jr. Investigators with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that Mr. Black acknowledged taking part in the shooting, and that Jazmine’s family’s vehicle may not have been the intended target.
“This is most likely a case of mistaken identity,” the Harris County sheriff, Ed Gonzalez, said at a news conference on Sunday.
Another person, also a young African-American man, was in custody. Sheriff Gonzalez said that man had not been charged in Jazmine’s death, but he left open the possibility that additional charges could be filed.
The developments in the case took officials and residents by surprise. There was widespread relief that the suspect in Jazmine’s killing was off the street, but there was an acknowledgment that in today’s racially charged climate, nothing is what it seems. The end result, though, was just as tragic: a little girl was dead.
The initial description of the gunman as a white male came from several witnesses, including Jazmine’s teenage sister. With few other clues to go on, that description solidified as the official narrative of the shooting.
And although Sheriff Gonzalez said repeatedly that he did not want to speculate about a motive and could not say whether the shooting was a hate crime, he could not quell the assumptions that people made about the case, fueled by outrage and raw grief for young Jazmine. The notion of a white man opening fire on a black family was too potent for people to ignore, and seemed all too plausible after hate-motivated mass shootings at churches, synagogues and elsewhere in recent years.
“We live in a time where somebody could do something like this based purely on hate or race,” said Shaun King, a civil-rights activist who raised money for a reward in the case and who helped crack it by forwarding a tip about the gunman to the authorities. “That it turned out to not be the case, I don’t think changes the devastating conclusion that people had thought something like that was possible.”
Sheriff Gonzalez said a red pickup truck had indeed come to a stop at a traffic signal next to Jazmine and her family when the shooting happened. But the authorities now believe that the driver — the white man in the sketch — was a bystander.
“This just went down very quickly,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “When the gunfire erupted — we are talking about small children, they witnessed something very traumatic. And it’s very likely the last thing they did see was that red truck and the driver in that truck.”
Lee Merritt, a lawyer who represents Jazmine’s family as well as relatives of several African-American victims of high-profile police shootings, said the arrest of Mr. Black shocked the family, who are preparing for Jazmine’s burial on Tuesday. But he added that Jazmine’s life and death were important, no matter the race of the killer.
The family “didn’t want a white person to be prosecuted — they wanted the right person to be prosecuted,” Mr. Merritt said. “This New Year’s tragedy deserved the mass attention that it got, and it shouldn’t only be weaponized for political purposes when the suspected killer is white. The whole movement of Black Lives Matter is about the attention and care that is given to people of color in the face of violence.”
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David A. Clarke Jr., a former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis., who has been an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, described the case on Twitter as “cultural dysfunction.”
Mr. Clarke, a conservative commentator who is black, wrote: “They blamed this on a white guy? Seriously? I could have told you it wasn’t a white guy who did this. Now that it’s Black On Black crime, let’s see if community outrage will maintain its intensity now that there is no racial component.”
Supporters of the family and residents of the area where the shooting occurred strongly disagreed, saying the death of an innocent child was what was drawing the African-American community together.
“We have to protect the children, to let them know that they are safe, and that they can go to school, that they can ride in a car,” Brenda Bingham, a former school counselor who lives near the shooting scene, said on Sunday.
Mr. King, the activist, said he did not get involved in the case because he thought the shooter was white. He said he has five children, including a 6-year-old daughter, and that “I internalized the pain of the family and tried to search as if it were my own child who was killed.”
Mr. King said he got an email on Thursday with the subject line “tip” and a request from the writer to remain anonymous. “The person said, I know who the shooter is, and it’s not at all who you all are looking for,” said Mr. King, who forwarded the tip to Sheriff Gonzalez.
Research has shown that the accuracy of eyewitness accounts can be undercut by stress and by conditions at the time of a crime. “Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence you can have,” said Lori Brown, a criminologist at Meredith College. People generally try to understand how a traumatic event could have happened by using what they already know about the world, Ms. Brown said, and “unfortunately, we fill in the gaps.”
Jazmine’s mother, LaPorsha Washington, who was injured in the shooting, told CNN before the arrest that she did not see the man in the police sketch, but that her teenage daughter had.
“I don’t know if it was some kind of violent hatred, if it was a hate crime, or what it was,” Ms. Washington told CNN. “But you can plainly see through my windows. I have no tint on my windows or anything, so you can see that it was a mother, a black mother, with four beautiful children, girls, in this car.”
Another element contributing to the belief that the shooting was racially motivated was its apparent similarity to an unsolved case in the same area. In August 2017, a gunman fired randomly into a car, injuring A’Vonta Williams, 21, who is black, and his girlfriend’s grandmother. A family member described that gunman as a white man driving a Ford pickup truck.
At a court hearing for Mr. Black on Sunday, a prosecutor said the information from the anonymous tip involved Mr. Black and another man, identified by the initials L.W. On Instagram, Mr. Merritt, the lawyer for Jazmine’s family, named that second person as Larry Woodruffe, 24. A man with that name was booked into the Harris County jail on Sunday on a drug possession charge.
At the hearing, a prosecutor said that Mr. Black told the authorities he was driving a rented vehicle on Dec. 30, when an accomplice opened fire from the passenger side of a Dodge sedan. The men did not realize the Dodge belonged to Jazmine and her family until they saw news reports, the prosecutor said.
Lawyers for Mr. Black and Mr. Woodruffe could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Jazmine sat with her three sisters in the car as Ms. Washington, 30, drove to pick up her morning coffee; the family were still in their pajamas. They were driving south on a highway feeder road about 13 miles east of downtown Houston when another vehicle came up alongside them and someone in it began shooting.
Ms. Washington was hit in the arm. Her 6-year-old daughter suffered injuries from broken glass. But a bullet struck Jazmine in the head, and she died at the scene.
Ms. Washington told ABC13 from a hospital bed that it was one of her other daughters who first realized Jazmine had been struck.
“She said: ‘Momma, Jazmine’s not moving. She’s not talking,’” Ms. Washington said. “I turned around and my 7-year-old was shot in the head.”
News reports of the killing prompted public offers of help for the family. DeAndre Hopkins, a wide receiver for the Houston Texans, pledged to donate his paycheck from this weekend’s playoff game, some $29,000, to help pay for Jazmine’s funeral. Sheriff Gonzalez’s office vowed to find Jazmine’s killer and began using the social media hashtag #JusticeForJazmine.
At a rally for Jazmine on Saturday in a Walmart parking lot near the shooting scene, supporters clutched banners and artwork dedicated to Jazmine. Many parents said the shooting had made them fear for their own lives and those of their children. Tensions were apparent: At one point, a man stood next to Ms. Washington holding a black baseball bat reading Black Lives Matter.
At the sheriff’s news conference on Sunday, Ms. Lee, the congresswoman, said that even though the killing no longer appeared to have been a hate crime, “I certainly hope that people would accept the fear that young mother experienced.”
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