He killed 3 Muslim neighbors, but question remains: Is it a hate crime?

The man, Craig Hicks, pleaded guilty Wednesday and will serve three consecutive sentences of life without parole for murders that police initially said stemmed from a parking dispute.

He killed 3 Muslim neighbors, but question remains: Is it a hate crime?

DURHAM, N.C. — He hated religion. He hated rule breakers. He hated people who parked in his spot.

The man at the center of a case that caused a worldwide furor four years ago over anti-Muslim violence was filled with so much hate that he shot and killed three of his neighbors, all students of Middle Eastern descent, at his apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The man, Craig Hicks, pleaded guilty Wednesday and will serve three consecutive sentences of life without parole for murders that police initially said stemmed from a parking dispute.

Even so, the case has tested the limitations of the legal system on the question of when a hateful crime becomes a hate crime. Across the country, reports of bias-based attacks are on the rise. But many such cases that get to court are not officially prosecuted as hate crimes, to the surprise and sometimes the dismay of those on the victims’ side, for whom the question can be as much a moral issue as a legal one.

The families of the slain students — Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19; her sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and Yusor’s new husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23 — have repeatedly pressed for a hate crime designation, to no avail.

North Carolina does not have a hate crime statute that would apply to first-degree murder, but the family met repeatedly with a federal prosecutor, and then — twice — with his superior at the Justice Department.

“If a Muslim man knocked on a door and executed a Christian family in their home with no provocation, that would be called terrorism,” Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the sisters’ father, said in frustration. “But we Muslims are soft targets.”

Though Hicks’ guilt was not in question and his sentence had been settled in advance, there were furious attempts to ensure that the record reflected a community’s anguish.

In court and legal filings, Hicks, 50, was called a white supremacist, a bigot and a monster. At the hearing, the state said that in interviews with 36 neighbors, none of the white ones remembered him brandishing a weapon or wearing a gun. But those who were black or brown did. He blocked the car of a woman of Indian descent and threatened to beat her. He told a Persian man, “I am sick of you people,” and used racial slurs against African Americans.

And, of course, one of his confrontations ended in fatal violence.

His crimes, said Satana Deberry, the Durham County district attorney, were those of “a white man who society had taught that his views were the only ones that mattered.”

Deberry called an expert witness on the concept of implicit bias, or unconsciously held negative stereotypes. Implicit bias has been cited in police shootings of unarmed black men.

The expert, Samuel Sommers, a psychologist at Tufts University, said it was reasonable to assume that Hicks had acted out of “intergroup bias.”

The prosecution played excerpts from a video of Hicks’ confession. In the recording, he giggles after saying that he had spent part of the morning playing “Assassin’s Creed,” a video game, and boasts of the accuracy of his gun. During the encounter, Hicks claimed, Barakat had been full of profanity-laden defiance.

But then, the media was ordered to turn off recorders and cameras. With the courtroom packed with families and friends of the victims, many in Muslim dress, the prosecutor played a video taken on Barakat’s phone during the shootings.

That video, never before made public, recorded what happened after Barakat opened the door to Hicks’ knock Feb. 10, 2015. “You’ve got three cars in the lot, and I don’t have a parking spot,” Hicks is heard to say.

In the video, Barakat remains polite and does not curse. But Hicks says, “If you’re going to be disrespectful towards me, I am going to be disrespectful of you.”

Asked to leave, Hicks pulls his gun and shoots Barakat from the porch. The two women can be heard shrieking and begging at the top of their lungs.

As the video of the massacre played, some people cried out and prayed, or shouted out at Hicks, until the judge, Orlando Hudson, asked for calm.

None of the three students had parked in Hicks’ assigned spot, and only two had parked anywhere in the lot, according to police and court records.

Hicks’ story raised the question of whether he was inventing pretexts to explain his violence, or whether his perceptions were so distorted by prejudice that he believed his own story, as Sommers suggested in an affidavit.

“This is as much a dispute over parking as Rosa Parks was an argument over a bus seat,” Farris Barakat, Deah’s brother, told the court.

Hate crimes, in which victims are chosen because they belong to or are thought to belong to a particular group, are given a special status in law because they can leave an entire community of people feeling threatened and violated. Courts have said that “bias-inspired conduct” can be punished without violating the First Amendment because such conduct causes greater harm.

After the 2015 shootings, Abu-Salha said, his mosque added armed security at Friday prayer services, friends bought guns for self-defense, and some Muslim women stopped wearing headscarves out of fear.

Hicks was an angry white man, unemployed, with few assets other than a small arsenal of firearms and a $2,000 car. He owed $14,000 in child support.

His Facebook posts were aggressively anti-religion but did not single out a specific religion.

He kept copious records of his obsession over violations of the parking rules at the complex and related confrontations, complaints and calls to towing services. He had once come knocking on the victims’ door, brandishing a gun, to complain about noise. They had been playing the board game Risk.

In one of two recent jailhouse interviews, he called the three students “disrespectful punks.”

He had not known the three were Muslims, he said, though the women always wore headscarves, and though Hicks went on to complain that he had seen them violating the Muslim duty to fast during Ramadan.

Experts said violence against people simply because they were religious could be considered a bias crime no matter what their faith was. But Hicks insisted religion had nothing to do with the murders.

“I’ve defended Muslims. I know Muslims,” he said. “I take pity on them, the way society treats them like they are lesser people.”

At a hearing last week, Hicks’ lawyers tried unsuccessfully to quash any testimony on implicit bias, saying that it was an untested body of social science and that there were no legal grounds for “punishing a person for his unconscious beliefs, for which he is by definition unaware.”

On Wednesday, Hicks’ lawyers asked no questions of Sommers.

One reason that some bias crimes are not prosecuted under hate crime laws is that defendants like Hicks already face the steepest possible penalties, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

In 2015, the Hicks case landed on the desk of Ripley Rand, then the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. In an interview this year, Rand said the federal government was meant to intervene if local authorities could not or would not do their jobs, which did not seem to be the case in Durham, where Hicks had seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Rand said he had told the families back then that the blurred motives complicated the application of the hate crime law and was surprised to learn that they were still waiting for public recognition that the murders were motivated by hate.

“I have failed the family in not making sure the family fully understood the law,” he said.

The family appealed to Vanita Gupta, then the assistant attorney general running the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who met with them twice. Gupta declined to discuss the case but, speaking generally, explained that the department was governed by a 6th Circuit decision that did not allow for mixed motives, setting what some experts said was a higher bar than the law requires.

“The proof must be very clear that the only motivation for the crime is hate,” Gupta said.

Legal standards, however, are not the same as moral standards. And that, Levin said, is where the victim impact statements come in: as “the moral anchor for what we do next.”

Hicks had initially asked to be excused from the courtroom before the victims’ family members spoke. “I like to think I’ve got empathy, but I look at the way I act with stuff and really wonder if I do,” he said in an interview. “I feel sorry for the family members, but at the same time I really don’t want to deal with them, and that would be empathy.”

Abu-Salha objected, saying that letting Hicks be absent would be “coddling” him.

“In no just world,” he wrote in a letter to the court, “should he be able to murder children and not face the words of the families whose lives he has destroyed.”

After reading the letter, Hicks withdrew his request to leave the courtroom.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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