North Carolina prosecutors seek death penalty in killing of 3 Muslims

Prosecutors say Craig Stephen Hicks methodically shot three Muslim students

A prosecutor described in court here Monday how Craig Stephen Hicks, accused of killing three Muslim college students Feb. 10, methodically shot each one several times after a dispute over a parking space.

Hicks told police that he retrieved a handgun from his apartment after he arrived home that day and encountered "certain issues ... involving parking," Assistant Dist. Atty. James Dornfried told a packed courtroom as he petitioned a judge to apply the death penalty in the case.

Hicks confronted Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, at Barakat's front door and "there was a brief interaction, a discussion" involving parking. Hicks then shot Barakat several times, Dornfried said.

When Barakat’s newlywed wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 22, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, began screaming, Hicks stepped inside the apartment and shot both women, Dornfried said.

"They were alive after the first volley," the prosecutor said. "Each one of these women was then shot in the head."

He added, "The defendant then started exiting the apartment and shot Deah Barakat a final time."

Moments after Dornfried described the killings, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two women, passed a few feet behind Hicks at the defense table and muttered, "Coward. Scumbag."

Hicks, 46, who sat manacled in an orange prison uniform, glanced up at Abu-Salha but did not respond.

Friends and relatives of the victims' families glared at Hicks as they left the courtroom after the brief hearing.

Terry W. Alford, a private attorney assigned to assist a court-appointed state capital defender who is leading Hicks’ defense, did not contest the prosecutor’s request for the death penalty.

Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson, Jr. ruled that the prosecution had met the state standard for a capital case.  "This defendant is death penalty qualified," Hudson said in court.

Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Dornfried said Yusor’s blood was found on Hicks’ pants, and shell casings from the scene matched a handgun confiscated from Hicks’ car.

Hudson set the next hearing in the case for the first week of June.

The three students lived in an apartment below the unit occupied by Hicks and his wife on Summerwalk Circle in the Finley Forest complex in Chapel Hill.  Gunshots rang out in the busy complex just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10.

Chapel Hill police said the shootings stemmed from a parking dispute.

Neighbors said Hicks was notorious for angrily confronting residents and visitors about parking or noise. He often called a towing company to remove cars he said were parked in spaces he claimed were reserved for him and his wife.

A police search warrant noted that Hicks "kept pictures and detailed notes on parking activity."

Two days after the shootings, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the FBI had begun a preliminary investigation into whether the shootings amounted to a hate crime. The decision came after the case received worldwide attention, propelled by a social media campaign tagged #muslimlivesmatter.

Friends and family members of the three students said the victims were targeted because of their religion. Barakat’s brother, Farris, and Deah’s close friend and former apartment roommate, Imad Ahmad, told The Times that Hicks’ anger intensified after the Abu-Salha sisters, who wore Muslim head scarves, began spending more time at the apartment. Yusor Abu-Salha moved in after the couple married Dec. 27.

In early January, Hicks accosted the sisters’ mother, Amira, when she parked in front of the Hicks’ apartment while delivering her daughter’s wedding dress. Yusor Abu-Salha asked Hicks why he confronted them, Ahmad said.

"Yusor told me he said, 'I don’t like the way you look,' " Ahmad said.

On the day of the shootings, none of the three cars belonging to the students were parked in the spaces claimed by Hicks, Ahmad and Farris Barakat said.

Deah Barakat was a dental student at the University of North Carolina. His wife was to join him in the dental program this fall. Razan Abu-Salha was a student in the design school at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Hicks, a paralegal student at Durham Technical Community College, surrendered to police the evening of the shootings.

Detectives found an arsenal of weapons in his apartment: 14 rifles and handguns, including a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

On his Facebook page, Hicks wrote, “Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative.”

The page featured a photo of a handgun and the comment, “Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader.”

Hicks, who described himself as an atheist or "anti-theist," railed against organized religion on the Facebook page. He did not not specifically criticize Islam, and neighbors said in interviews that they never heard him make any comments about the religion.

"He had equal-opportunity anger toward all the residents," neighbor Sarah Maness said of Hicks.

The "religious views" section of Hicks’ Facebook page says, "I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being -- which your religion does with self-righteous gusto."

The comment did not mention a specific religion.

According to search warrants, police seized computers and cellphones belonging to Hicks and to the three students.

Karen Hicks, Hicks’ wife of seven years, denied that the shootings were a result of religious hatred.

“He believes everyone is equal,” she said at a news conference the day after the shootings. “It doesn’t matter what the person looks like.

“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed,” she said.

Karen Hicks suggested that her husband had mental health problems.  Hicks had a concealed-carry permit.

Because of legal challenges, there has been a de facto moratorium since 2007 on executions in North Carolina. The last execution in the state, which has 149 inmates on death row, was in 2006.

When Namee Barakat, the father of Deah Barakat, was asked in February whether his son and the two women were killed because of their Muslim faith, he replied, "Very possibly."

"This is more than just about parking,” Barakat said. “Three people get shot in the head. The death penalty would not be enough."

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