The Tragedy of Jazmine Barnes: Phantom Serial Killers and Eyewitness Errors

January 23, 2019

On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital.

As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away.

The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist.

The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence.

Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.

The Serial Killer Search

Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer.

Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case.

Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation.

The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun).

Muhammad is correct that statistically most victims of mass shootings are African American. As Lois Beckett noted in The Guardian, “A new analysis of 358 mass shootings in America in 2015 found that three-quarters of the victims whose race could be identified were black. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or were identified by law enforcement as gang-related. Another third were sparked by arguments, often among people who were drunk or high. The analysis, conducted by the New York Times with data collected by Reddit’s mass shooting tracker and the Gun Violence Archive, used law enforcement reports on shootings that left four or more people injured or dead in 2015. Few of the incidents resembled the kinds of planned massacres in schools, churches and movie theaters that have attracted intense media and political attention. Instead, the analysis, defined purely by the number of victims injured, revealed that many were part of the broader burden of everyday gun violence on economically struggling neighborhoods…. Many gang-related mass shootings began as fights over small incidents of perceived disrespect. [Antiviolence activist] Dante Barry said he was glad the report highlighted how everyday gun violence affecting young black Americans was often fueled ‘by what could be considered minor disputes turning into deadly standoffs’, including “fight[s] over shoes, on social media, or at a party.”

As noted, truly random violence is quite rare; shootings almost always emerge from personal conflicts and grievances, between friends, lovers, co-workers, and so on. Conversely, the circumstances of the two shootings might suggest instead that the shooting of a black family by a white man from a car on a Houston street is so rare that it’s likely to be the same person. After all, a year and a half went by between the attacks. If random gun attacks on black families on public roads by white suspects in trucks happened often, there would presumably be a dozen or more cases (both solved and unsolved) to compare the Barnes shooting to. Given the vagaries of eyewitness descriptions, it is of course possible that the eyewitnesses in the Williams shooting may be wrong about important details including the race of the attacker.

The Arrests

Soon Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced that Eric Black Jr., a 20-year-old black man, had been arrested for the shooting. Black admitted to being the driver in the car, while Larry Woodruffe—also a black man in his twenties—fired the fatal shots into the Barnes’s vehicle. It was a gang-related drive-by shooting, and the pair had mistaken their vehicle for their intended target.

What of the belief that the Barnes car was randomly targeted? This logical mistake made by many comes in the form of a false-choice error: Either the Barnes family was randomly or intentionally targeted. In fact it was neither: Jazmine and her family were not randomly targeted—by a racist or anyone else. One this was understood the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. It was not, after all, a random shooting, so that aspect of the probability was correct. Because of confirmation bias we often connect dots or data points that may or may not actually be connected.

Multiple Mistaken Identities

What about the prime suspect, the thin white man in his 30s or 40s wearing a hooded sweatshirt who was last seen driving a red pickup? That turned out to be a case of mistaken eyewitness testimony. It was probably a man named Robert Cantrell, who closely resembled the eyewitness sketch and was in the area that night but had nothing to do with the attack. The fallibility of eyewitness testimony is widely known (among psychologists and police detectives anyway, if not among the public), and the mistake is not the fault of the Barnes family or other witnesses. No one was lying or hoaxing; it was an honest mistake—but a mistake nonetheless.

As the New York Times reported, “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.”

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, stated that he had received information that Black and Woodruffe had killed Jazmine Barnes on January 3, though the following day he issued a tweet about Cantrell, suggesting that he’d played a role in the crime.

Mistaken eyewitness reports are common, and had terrible consequences in 2002 when snipers attacked the Washington, D.C., area, terrorizing much of America. Based upon eyewitness descriptions, law enforcement agencies alerted the public to be on the lookout for suspects in a white box truck or white van. Fairly detailed descriptions were offered, including a roof rack. Thousand of vehicles were stopped and searched, jamming highways for miles. The focus on a white van intensified after the October 14, 2002, shooting outside a store in suburban Virginia, when a man claimed to have seen the shooter standing next to a white- or cream-colored van. The man was found to have lied to police about what he saw and made up the story.

At least one “eyewitness” lied, and others got it wrong. The snipers, John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, were found in a dark blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. “We were looking for a white van with white people, and we ended up with a blue car with black people,” said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. In the end, the emphasis on the white van by both the police and the public almost certainly cost innocent lives. According to the Washington Post, the police had stopped the Caprice on at least ten separate occasions in the area of sniper attacks, but it was let go because it was not the white van that eyewitnesses had reported.

The Aftermath: Revisiting Probability

This is a tragic case of multiple mistaken identities, wrong assumptions, and phantom fears. As it happens, the sensational speculation about a racist serial killer was false. The actual killers turned out to fit the statistically most likely profile. This was little surprise to the police; serial killers are quite rare, and the subset of serial killers motivated my racism is even smaller. Shootings on Houston streets, on the other hand, are far more common.

While many in the black community were relieved to know that they were not being targeted by a racist serial killer, Shaun King stated that “We live in a time where somebody could do something like this based purely on hate or race. 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.”

King is mistaken; no one doubted it was possible that the shooting was motivated by hate. Bizarre, senseless crimes make the news all the time, from serial bombers in neighboring Austin to mass shootings. Anything is possible, and the fact that many thought it possible that the act was a hate crime is not a “devastating conclusion” or indictment of dismal race relations at all; that idea had been widely circulating and asserted as probable, and reported nationally. As law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at University of Florida Law School Katheryn Russell-Brown notes in her book The Color of Crime, “except for hate crimes, most of us have difficulty imagining someone White committing a random act of violence against someone Black” (p. 111).

What may be more telling is that the whole community came together—including the largely white police force—to bring the killers of Jazmine Barnes to justice. The death of the little girl was not ignored, for reasons of her race, gender, or anything else. It was widely reported and made a top priority. The police and Barnes family didn’t care about the race of Jazmine’s killers. Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing the family said that Jazmine’s death “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… They didn’t want a white person to be prosecuted. They wanted the right person to be prosecuted.”