Arrest Of Houston Shooting Suspect Raises Questions Of Initial Hate Crime Calls

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 7, 2019 7:12 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A suspect in the drive-by shooting of a 7-year-old girl appeared in a Houston courtroom today. The girl's death captured national attention just before New Year's, when the family said a white man had fired into their car. This suspect is African-American, and some people are saying the initial calls of a hate crime were irresponsible.

Florian Martin of Houston Public Media reports.

FLORIAN MARTIN, BYLINE: Jazmine Barnes died in the car she was riding in with her mother and three sisters. The family described the shooter as a white man in his 30s or 40s driving a red pickup truck. The Harris County Sheriff's Office released a composite sketch and video of a truck racing away from the scene.

For nearly a week, authorities were on the hunt for the alleged white killer. Civil rights activists got involved, some offering large rewards. At a rally held on Saturday, much of the conversation revolved around race. Here's Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

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SHEILA JACKSON LEE: And do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be - a hate crime.

MARTIN: But the next morning, the sheriff's office announced the arrest of Eric Black Jr., a 20-year-old African-American. He's charged with murder in Jazmine's death. Prosecutors say Black and an accomplice mistook the family's car for that of someone they had gotten into an argument with the night before. To a reporter's question on Sunday whether her comments were irresponsible, Congresswoman Jackson Lee said absolutely not.

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JACKSON LEE: It would be the kind of thing that lends itself to thinking if this description came in however way from a frightened car full of young girls, baby girls and their frightened mother.

MARTIN: Other questions have bubbled up. Some are wondering if authorities should not have released an image of a suspect that turned out nothing like the alleged perpetrator. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was asked about it on "Houston Matters," a public media talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOUSTON MATTERS")

ED GONZALEZ: Sometimes the information that comes forward initially - I mean, that's what you have to go by unless you have other descriptors or information simply because if you have somebody that's out there firing upon families or children, we need to identify those persons or individuals as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Gonzalez says it's possible the driver of the pickup truck was the last person the family saw before the shooting, and they simply believed him to be the shooter. Kevin Buckner teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. He says witnesses can make such mistakes. He cites one case where a woman was sexually assaulted in her apartment.

KEVIN BUCKNER: The person who was being assaulted actually described for police a news person that she saw on the television set while the assault was taking place.

MARTIN: The sheriff says the case isn't closed yet. He says there's one additional suspect, and authorities would still like to speak to the driver of the red pickup truck to see if he can provide more details about the incident. For NPR News, I'm Florian Martin in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.