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Man charged in death of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes

Authorities now believe the death of the young black girl was a case of mistaken identity.

Barnes family/Shaun King

Police in Texas have arrested a man in the death of Jazmine Barnes, a 7-year-old girl who was shot dead while riding in a car with family last week — a major shift in a high-profile case that was once viewed by some as a racially motivated attack, but now appears more a case of mistaken identity.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office filed capital murder charges late Saturday against Eric Black Jr., who became a suspect this week based on a tip. Black admitted to taking part in the shooting, but police say other suspects could be involved.

Barnes was riding a car with her mother, LaPorsha Washington, and her three sisters near Houston when shots pierced through their vehicle at around 6:50 am last Sunday. Washington was struck once by a bullet to her arm. And Washington says when she turned around to check on the children in the backseat, she saw Barnes had been shot in the head.

For much of the last week, the prime suspect was believed to be a white man. A sketch artist’s rendering of the suspect depicted a thin white man in his 30s or 40s. Surveillance footage showed him fleeing the scene in a red pick-up truck. This man is no longer considered a suspect; the man charged with the murder, Black Jr., is a 20-year-old black man.

Authorities now believe that Barnes’s death was a case of mistaken identity; Black (and other possible suspects) might have believed other individuals were in the car that was shot at.

The new details complicate a deeply emotional case that has resonated nationally. Without a readily evident explanation of the attack, Washington believed her daughter’s death to be an “intentional,” racially motivated incident. In interviews and at press conferences, Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney working with Barnes’s family, said the shooter’s race was a key indicator of his motivations behind the attack.

“There was no other justification or the motivation that the family could identify, other than a white male who was a complete stranger to them decided to target their family,” Merritt said Thursday at a news conference with the sheriff.

The thought that a white man would target a family because they were black took hold deeply for some, and reflected on the deep divisions in race relations today.

As for the white man who sped away in a red pick-up truck, there are reports that he was merely an innocent bystander. Shaun King, a writer and activist, who along with Merritt offered up a $100,000 reward for information to identify the shooter, says the man is no longer a suspect.

“It appears that man was an innocent bystander who fled, actually fearing for his life as well,” King tweeted Sunday morning. “He was not the shooter.”

Barnes’s case still says something about the state of race relations in America

That Barnes’s case stirred such deep emotions points a larger story about targeted violence against communities of color and the unequal justice afforded to victims. For many, the story that a white man had targeted a young black girl was at once shocking but not surprising, given the heightened displays of racism and hate sprouting up nationwide.

Barnes’s case fed into fears that the death of yet another young black girl would receive less attention from the public and authorities than it would have if the victim been white. As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart explains, she represented the intersection of violence directed at one of the most vulnerable populations — young black women — and how, too often, their deaths go uncovered:

Jazmine Barnes’s death is also a story about black childhoods — Barnes, a second-grader who wanted to be a teacher and loved music, was killed at a time where research has shown that black children are often viewed as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers, a perception that likely plays a role in how often they’re exposed to violence. It’s also a story about gender and the fact that black women are nearly three times more likely than white women to be killed in homicides, though violence against black women is not as often covered by the media.

More details around the Barnes case are likely to emerge in the coming days — authorities have already hinted that more arrests are on the way. But the tragedy of the randomized violence doesn’t take away from the truth underlying her case: that too often, young black girls are the victims.