Local

‘Cold-hearted malice’: Man pleads guilty to murder of 3 young Muslims in Chapel Hill

This story was corrected at 5:38 p.m. June 12, 2019. See details in story.

Craig Hicks pleaded guilty Wednesday to shooting three young Muslims in their Chapel Hill home, ending the 2015 case the district attorney called an act of “cold-blooded malice” driven by a gun fanatic’s hatred of his neighbors’ religion.

Hicks will serve a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole for killing his neighbors: Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19.

Family members and lawyers connected to the case said Wednesday’s hearing corrects a 4-year-old narrative that mistakenly cast the murders as a parking dispute rather than a hate crime.

Chapel Hill police attributed the shootings at the Finley Forest Condominiums to a long-simmering parking dispute at the time. But many blamed the deaths on anti-Muslim bigotry, including the women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who spoke to a Congressional committee in April.

“This was as much a longstanding dispute over parking as Rosa Parks was over a bus seat,” said Farris Barakat, Deah Barakat’s brother.

RAL_061219-HICKS-TEL-04.JPG
Dr. Muhammed Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha, prepares to make a statement after Craig Hicks pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the 2015 murders of three young Muslims at a Chapel Hill apartment Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at the Durham County Courthouse. Hicks will serve a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole for killing his neighbors at the Finley Forest Condominiums: Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Handcuffed in court, Hicks told Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson on Wednesday he had wanted to plead guilty and take the death penalty early on. He criticized his attorneys for holding up his case. (Hicks’ statement to the judge was corrected.)

“Why has it taken so long?” Hicks asked, telling the judge he first appeared in court in 2015. “I understand the process, but that was over four years ago.”

District Attorney Satana Deberry, who took over the case after defeating incumbent Roger Echols in last fall’s election, was not pursuing the death penalty, the judge reminded him.

“Quite frankly, four years in court in a case that at one time was understood to be a capital case, is not quite that long,” Hudson said.

On Wednesday prosecutors called a behavioral psychologist from Tufts University as an expert witness. Dr. Samuel Sommers said evidence showed “these were not random victims of a parking dispute. ... These victims were seen and interacted with differently because of who they were.”

‘It is about cold-hearted malice and murder,” Deberry said. “It is not about parking.” (This quote was corrected.)

In a statement Wednesday evening, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue expressed regret for his department’s initial characterization of the crime.

“What we all know now and what I wish we had said four years ago is that the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan were about more than simply a parking dispute,” Blue said.

“The man who committed these murders undoubtedly did so with a hateful heart, and the murders represented the taking of three promising lives by someone who clearly chose not to see the humanity and the goodness in them,” Blue continued. “To the Abu-Salha and Barakat families, we extend our sincere regret that any part of our message all those years ago added to the pain you experienced through the loss of Our Three Winners. And, to the Muslim members of our community, know that you are heard, seen, and valued.”

American dream ‘slipping from his grasp’

Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn portrayed Hicks as a man with the American dream “slipping from his grasp.”

He had lost his job, his third marriage was crumbling and he complained that his housing complex was turning into a college dorm, she said.

He obsessively watched the 1993 Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down,” about an unemployed defense worker who sometimes reacts violently. (The date of the movie was corrected.)

Hicks was a “gun fanatic” who hated all forms of religion, Montgomery-Blinn said. He kept 13 guns in his house and two in his car, she said.

The prosecutor said Hicks became obsessed with parking and noise at the Finley Forest complex, yelling at white neighbors and confronting minorities with a gun.

Deah Barakat and his family got the worst of it, hearing “I don’t like the look of you people,” Montgomery-Blinn said. Hicks came to the door with a gun several times.

In a 2014 text, Yusor Abu-Salha said, “My neighbor is a lunatic.”

Phone recorded confrontation

This culminated in February 2015 when Hicks made a “carefully calculated choice to derail his life entirely,” Montgomery-Blinn continued.

He confronted his neighbors again over parking rules, which he had been misrepresenting. Two of the victims’ cars were in proper spaces, and a third was on the street.

He chose a gun from his collection because of its “dead-on accuracy,” the prosecutor said, and rang his neighbors’ door bell and executed the three young Muslims while their dinner lay uneaten on the table, she said.

Barakat went to his door with his cell phone recording, the district attorney said.

RAL_061219-HICKS-TEL-07.JPG
Durham Assistant District Kendra Montgomery-Blinn wipes her eyes while listening to a victim’s statement after Craig Hicks pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the 2015 murders of three young Muslims at a Chapel Hill apartment Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at the Durham County Courthouse. Hicks will serve a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole for killing his neighbors at the Finley Forest Condominiums: Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

The phone evidence wasn’t discovered until weeks after the shootings, Montgomery-Blinn said, offering “proof” that Barakat neither cursed nor spoke harshly, as his neighbor claimed. On the recording, Hicks can be heard saying, “If you’re going to disrespect me, I’m going to disrespect you,” Montgomery-Blinn said.

Friends and family sobbed from the courtroom seats Wednesday as prosecutors played the recording. Barakat’s sister fell to the floor, forcing a three-minute recess.

“Deah, Yusor and Razan were murdered in an Islamophobic hate crime,” Deah’s sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, said later. “Let’s call this what it was: a terrorist attack.”

Legacy survives

Barakat, an N.C. State University graduate, was a second-year student at UNC School of Dentistry. His wife of six weeks, also an NCSU graduate, planned to join him in dental school that fall. Razan Abu-Salha studied architecture at N.C. State University’s School of Design.

In their plans for a life in dentistry, the young couple planned a dental relief trip to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Their legacy survives in Raleigh with the Light House Project, a house Deah Barakat owned on Tarboro Street that has become an incubator for faith-based youth projects. A quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stretches across its front: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

In their statements in court, family members expressed anger at Hicks for telling Chapel Hill police that Barakat had provoked him, using obscenities and joining the fight over parking.

Instead, the video showed the victims were fearful enough to record Hicks at their door, hoping to obtain a restraining order.

“I have never, literally, my hand to God, met finer people in my life than these families,” said longtime Raleigh attorney Joseph Cheshire, who represented the families. “Hate today permeates our society at every level. It’s even stoked by many of our elected officials and far too many of our citizens, and we are tolerating it.”

Cheshire said federal prosecutors declined to bring hate-crime charges in the case, a decision that “hurt a lot of feelings.” He said North Carolina has no felony hate-crime law, and he challenged the General Assembly to create one.

He suggested naming such a law for Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters.

“Maybe it will be taken more seriously,” Cheshire said. “We’ll see what people are made of, won’t we?”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
  Comments