Hicks, 46, has been charged with killing Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19. The three were shot dead in their apartment on Feb. 10 in Finley Forest Condominiums in Chapel Hill.
District Attorney Roger Echols filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty on Wednesday, and legal experts say multiple factors could have motivated that decision.
In order for someone to be tried capitally in North Carolina, there needs to be a first-degree murder conviction and evidence of one of 11 aggravating circumstances — which include a murder that is “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” or a murder committed along with other crimes of violence toward other people.
Colon Willoughby, a partner at McGuireWoods LLP and a former Wake County district attorney, said all of that would factor into a district attorney’s decision-making process.
He said, when a case involves multiple homicides, there is usually some evidence of an aggravating circumstance.
“A crime like this — where it involves multiple homicides — is one where it’s not surprising that the community would need to make that decision,” Willoughby said. “The prosecutor might not feel comfortable.”
Jim Coleman, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke University, said external factors can also influence the state’s decision.
“The fact that the three victims in this case were Muslims, and they are investigating whether there might have been an anti-religion factor to the crime — those are all factors that would influence the decisions of the prosecution,” he said.
Coleman said the high-profile nature of some cases can impact the state’s decision to seek a capital trial, though that’s not the intention.
“There are some crimes that are so inflammatory that the community demands that there be swift justice and extreme punishment,” Coleman said. “Those aren’t formal factors, but those are the human factors that would influence a prosecutor.”
Coleman said death penalty convictions are rare in Durham County, where juries might be less inclined to impose a capital sentence, but Willoughby said no one can predict what a jury will do.
“The makeup of the jury is going to be key, and how good the defense lawyer is in humanizing the defendant is also a really big factor,” Coleman said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a foregone conclusion that he would be sentenced to death if he’s convicted.”
In 2012, the Durham City Council passed a resolution to repeal the death penalty, which was met with support from many residents.
Hicks’ attorney, Assistant Capital Defender Stephen Freedman, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The alternative to capital punishment for first-degree murder would be life in prison without parole.
Willoughby said a capital trial slows the conviction process because it necessitates extra scrutiny. He said it’s not unusual for a capital case to take one to two years.
Candy Clark, a secretary in the district attorney’s office, said Hicks’ next hearing will be scheduled for the week of April 6.