Prosecutors will go before a Durham County Superior Court judge on Monday to begin laying out their case for pursuing the death penalty against Craig Stephen Hicks.
Hicks, 43, turned himself in to Chatham County law enforcement officers on Feb. 10, less than an hour after Chapel Hill police found Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, dead inside a condominium on the eastern edge of town.
Investigators contend Hicks, a neighbor of Deah Barakat and his wife, Yusor, shot and killed the couple and her sister amid a long-simmering parking dispute.
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.
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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.
On Monday, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols will be asked to provide some details of the case so Judge Orlando Hudson can decide whether capital punishment could be an option if first-degree murder convictions are won.
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.
Accused, victims were neighbors
The homicides happened at Finley Forest, a complex 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 his son, a dental student at the 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.
Notes on parking
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.”
Family, friends and strangers inspired by the community-mindedness of the victims have worked since their deaths to honor their legacies with numerous charitable efforts.