Two men suspected in a drive-by shooting that killed a 7-year-old black Houston girl mistakenly thought they were attacking people whom they had fought with at a club hours earlier, a prosecutor said Monday.
One of the men, Eric Black Jr., appeared in court Monday on a capital murder charge in the Dec. 30 killing of Jazmine Barnes. Black, 20, didn't speak during the brief hearing or answer reporters' questions as he was being led into the courtroom. His lawyer, Alvin Nunnery, didn't speak to the media after the hearing and didn't immediately reply to a call seeking comment.
Black, who is African-American, was arrested Saturday during a traffic stop. Prosecutors allege that he told investigators he was driving the SUV from which an unidentified passenger fired at Jazmine, her three sisters and mother as they were on their way to a grocery store.
Authorities have declined to name the suspected shooter or say whether he has been arrested, but Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he is also black.
The girl's family and activists had believed the shooting was a hate crime. Gonzalez had said he was aware of these concerns and investigators looked into the possibility that race could have played a role. But Gonzalez declined to state a specific motive for the shooting before any arrests were made.
Based on the family's account of what happened, authorities initially believed that a white man in a red pickup truck was behind the attack. But they later received a tip that sent the case in a new direction from Shaun King, a civil rights activist who writes about racial issues and has a large social media following. The tip implicated two black men in the shooting.
Prosecutor Samantha Knecht told a judge Monday that the unidentified passenger fired on the family's car in a case of mistaken identity, thinking it belonged to people he and Black had fought with at a club hours before the shooting. She declined to comment about the second suspect.
Gonzalez said there was, in fact, a red pickup truck driven by a white man seen at a stoplight just before the shooting, but the driver didn't appear to have been involved. The sheriff said it was dark, the shooting happened quickly, and the red truck was probably the last thing seen by Jazmine's family. He said authorities believe Jazmine's family has been truthful during the investigation.
Throughout the investigation, Gonzalez stressed that he and his investigators would not stop working on behalf of Jazmine, and activists and elected officials praised him and other investigators for their efforts.
Deric Muhammad, an organizer of a rally that took place on Saturday in Houston to demand "Justice for Jazmine," commended Gonzalez for working with the community to collect evidence that led to Black's arrest.
"We are still heartbroken at the thought of a 7-year-old innocent child losing her life in such a violent way," Muhammad said in a statement. "We are no less heartbroken that those person(s) currently charged with this homicide are Black; not White."
Gonzalez cautioned that authorities were still investigating, but said: "At this point, it does not appear it was related to race."
Prosecutors said the 9 mm handgun they believe was used in the shooting was recovered from Black's home.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat who represents parts of Houston in Congress, said the community came together to help solve the case.
"It's wonderful to have a sheriff who's willing to engage in a dialogue about violence, about hate, about guns and we have that along with the (police chief), the mayor of our city," Lee said.
James Dixon, a prominent pastor in Houston, also thanked Gonzalez for working around the clock during the investigation.
"We are blessed in this city to have the kind of collegial relationships between pastors and law enforcement and elected officials where we all really work together, we cry together, we pray together, we serve together and sacrifice together," Dixon said.