Crime & Courts

Chapel Hill shooting case will proceed as a death penalty trial

Murder defendant Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, left, listens while his co-defense counsel Terry Alford makes notes during a Monday, April 6, 2015 death penalty hearing for Hicks. Presiding Judge Orlando Hudson found the case of the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students at Finley Forest residential complex in Chapel Hill, NC in February, 2015 made the Hicks case eligible for the death penalty.
Murder defendant Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, left, listens while his co-defense counsel Terry Alford makes notes during a Monday, April 6, 2015 death penalty hearing for Hicks. Presiding Judge Orlando Hudson found the case of the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students at Finley Forest residential complex in Chapel Hill, NC in February, 2015 made the Hicks case eligible for the death penalty. hlynch@newsobserver.com

A judge will allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty against Craig Stephen Hicks, the man charged in the Chapel Hill shootings that sparked global debate about whether the motive was the escalation of a parking dispute or a hate crime perpetrated in cold blood.

Hicks, 46, is accused of murdering Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

The killings occurred late in the afternoon of Feb. 10t at the Finley Forest condominium complex on the eastern edge of Chapel Hill.

On Monday, Jim Dornfried, a Durham County assistant district attorney, provided Judge Orlando Hudson several reasons for prosecutors’ plans to seek capital punishment.

He argued not only that the homicides were committed in the act of another felony, but he also said the nature of the shootings played into the decision to take the case capital.

On the afternoon of the shooting, Hicks went inside his home to retrieve a gun, then went to his neighbors’ door and had an exchange with Barakat.

“He pulled out his concealed firearm,” then shot Barakat, Dornfried said.

A spray of gunfire followed, Dornfried said.

The two women were in or near the kitchen, still alive, when the accused shot them again in the head; he fired at Barakat again on the way out of the condominium, the prosecutor said.

Dornfried said DNA evidence showed that Yusor Abu-Salha’s blood was on the pants Hicks was wearing after he turned himself in to Chatham County law enforcement officers.

Investigators found eight spent shell casings inside the condominium.

FBI investigates

As news spread quickly and globally on social media about the violent deaths of the three college-aged Muslims, questions grew about whether the motive for the killings was religious bias.

The New York Times reported in February that photos taken the day after the shootings showed that none of the cars that Barakat, his wife or her sister used was parked in Hicks’ assigned space.

Federal investigators are conducting an inquiry into whether case evidence supports federal hate-crime charges, which are very specific and difficult to prove. In such cases, where religious bias is alleged, the religion of the victims must be the predominant motivating factor for the crimes for a successful prosecution, legal scholars say.

Durham District Attorney Roger Echols said Monday that the FBI was investigating the case, but he declined to elaborate on whether any ethnic intimidation charges would accompany the three counts of first-degree murder.

Though Durham prosecutors often push for the death penalty as an option, few Durham juries have been asked in recent years to consider capital punishment.

Prosecutors often use the possibility of death to negotiate pleas that avoid the cost, time and emotional strain of a trial.

None of the 149 North Carolina inmates currently on death row was convicted in Durham.

Echols would not elaborate after the hearing on what other facts and evidence led him to pursue the death penalty.

A stash of guns

The homicides happened in a sliver of Durham County that falls within Chapel Hill city limits.

Hicks, an unemployed community college student, lived in a second-story unit at 270 Summerwalk Circle. His wife of seven years owned the condominium when they married.

Inside, he had a stash of guns that police seized during their investigation, according to search warrants.

In 2013, Barakat’s father bought 272 Summerwalk Circle, a ground-level unit on the north side of the building where Hicks lived, so Deah Barakat, a dental student at UNC-Chapel Hill, could live and study there while in school.

After a wedding in Raleigh on Dec. 27, Barakat and his new bride made the condominium their home. Razan, the younger sister of Yusor, had driven from Raleigh to Chapel Hill the afternoon of the shootings for a dinner date with the two.

Family of the couple said they had taken steps early in the year to appease their angry neighbor, who often patrolled the parking lot with a gun in a holster on his hip.

Search warrants from the case show that Hicks kept pictures and detailed notes on parking activity in the condominium complex.

It’s unclear what else investigators have discovered in the computers and phones seized in the hours and days after the killings. Since his arrest, Hicks has been in Central Prison in Raleigh, where jailers can keep him isolated from others and in what they describe as “safe-keeping.”

Responds to judge

Hicks, noticeably thinner than he was at his first court appearance after arrest, had several exchanges with Hudson during the brief hearing.

Hicks told the judge he was OK with having only one attorney with him at the hearing. Terry Alford, an attorney from the Triangle, was at the defense table. Defendants facing death are eligible to have two attorneys with them as their case plays out in court.

Stephen Freedman, a capital defender assigned to his case, was at another court proceeding and unavailable Monday.

Hicks mostly looked forward.

Family of the victims filled courthouse benches behind the prosecutors. Mohammad Abu-Salha, father of the women, called Hicks a “scumbag” and “coward” on the way out of the courtroom.

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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