DURHAM, N.C. — Moments after a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to gunning down three Muslim university students, a prosecutor played a cellphone video of the slayings in the courtroom Wednesday as victims’ relatives wept openly and a man hurled an expletive at the confessed killer.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 50, entered the plea to three counts of first-degree murder in a packed Durham courtroom. It came two months after the new district attorney dropped plans to seek the death penalty in hopes of concluding a case that she said had languished too long.
“I’ve wanted to plead guilty since day one,” Hicks told Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. The judge said Hicks had agreed as part of his plea bargain to accept three consecutive life sentences without parole. The judge added 64 to 89 months for the crime of discharging a gun into a building.
Police say that in February 2015, Hicks burst into a condo in Chapel Hill owned by 23-year-old Deah Barakat and fatally shot Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her 19-year-old sister Razan Abu-Salha.
At the time of the shootings, Chapel Hill police said Hicks claimed he was provoked by competition over parking spaces at the condo complex. Relatives of the victims said they were targeted because they were Muslim and asked federal authorities to pursue hate-crime charges.
The FBI conducted what it called a “parallel preliminary inquiry” to the homicide investigation to determine whether any federal laws were violated, including hate-crime statutes. The bureau turned over its investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greensboro in July 2015. Neither that office nor the Justice Department responded immediately to requests for comment Wednesday. Law enforcement officials had said previously that a hate crime would be difficult to prove.
Moments after Hicks entered his plea, prosecutor Kendra Montgomery-Blinn played a cellphone video of the slayings as the victims’ parents and siblings watched from the front row. Women wept openly and a young man hurled an expletive at Hicks after watching the video, which was shown on a large pull-down screen and on two flat-screen televisions brought in to give people in the courtroom a better view. The prosecutor also showed a video of Hicks’ confession and a series of still photos portraying happy moments in the victims’ lives.
Montgomery-Blinn said Barakat had turned his phone’s video on to capture an exchange with Hicks, who she said was often seething during his previous encounters with the victims.
The video shows Hicks complaining that Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters are using three parking spaces. When Barakat responds that they’re not taking any more spaces than condo rules allow, Hicks pulls a gun from his holster and fires several times.
The phone drops to the floor inside the front door, the sounds of women screaming can be heard, and then several more shots are heard.
“In 36 seconds, Mr. Hicks executed three people,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
Barakat, a dental student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Yusor Abu-Salha had been married for less than two months, and she had just been accepted to the dental school. Razan had just made the dean’s list in her first semester at North Carolina State University. All three were making plans to visit Turkey during their coming summer break to volunteer in a dental clinic at a camp for Syrian war refugees.
Barakat was shot several times as he stood in his doorway, autopsy results showed. His wife and her sister were shot in the head at close range inside the condo.
Hicks listened attentively as Montgomery-Blinn described him as a man who was watching the American Dream slip away while the victims were pursuing it. She said Hicks’ third marriage was disintegrating and he’d recently quit his job in anger after workers described him as constantly playing computer sniper games.
“The defendant was an angry and bitter man,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
The slain women’s father, psychiatrist Mohammad Abu-Salha, testified to a congressional hearing on hate crimes in April that Hicks had expressed hateful comments about his daughters wearing head scarves in observance of their faith.
“Three beautiful young Americans were brutally murdered and there is no question in our minds that this tragedy was born of bigotry and hate,” Dr. Abu-Salha testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.