A grand jury indicted Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, on three counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. The three were shot dead in their apartment earlier this month.
The FBI has launched a parallel investigation to determine whether their murders were a hate crime.
“The concept of a parallel investigation means that federal prosecutors and investigators who have training and expertise in federal hate crimes laws and more sophisticated criminal investigations will take the lead and will work collaboratively with N.C. and local law enforcement,” said Brooks Fuller, an adjunct professor in the School of Journalism who specializes in hate speech.
Under the U.S. federal hate crime acts law, a hate crime is defined as an act in which a person “attempts to cause bodily injury to any person because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin of any person.”
Fuller said under North Carolina’s felony laws, first-degree murder carries a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty.
“North Carolina does not have a ‘hate crimes’ law, merely an ethnic intimidation law that enhances the sentence for some misdemeanors,” he said. “So for a hate crimes law, you must turn to federal law.”
The U.S. attorney general is required by law to collect statistics about hate crimes, which are defined in the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.”
The FBI has posted these statistics each year to capture information about the bias that motivates crimes.
There were 5,922 single-bias incidents in 2013, according to the FBI’s most recent report. The top three bias categories were race, which accounted for 48.5 percent of hate crimes; sexual orientation, which accounted for 20.8 percent; and religion, which accounted for 17.4 percent.
Chris Brook, legal director of the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, said civil rights protection and First Amendment rights are difficult to balance appropriately.
“We believe that no one’s speech or group membership should be used against him or her unless the government proves a direct connection between an individual’s speech or group membership and the crime,” Brooks said.
He said hate crime legislation can ensure that people who commit crimes based on hostility are brought to justice.
“We strongly support the inquiry that has begun by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in response to these murders, and we strongly supported hate crimes legislation in the past,” Brooks said. “Too frequently there have been circumstances where local officials have been unwilling to prosecute crimes rooted in racism, bias against religious minorities or bias against LGBT communities.”
In a blog post, Shea Denning, a professor of public law and government at UNC, said the punishment for this month’s shooting cannot be made more severe.
“First-degree murder is a class A felony punishable by death or life without parole,” Denning said. “Obviously, there is no greater sentence than death. Thus, regardless of whether the killings were motivated by religious animus, the potential punishment for these crimes can be made no more severe.”