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Death penalty on the table in Chapel Hill shooting trial

Craig Hicks had a pre-trial hearing in Durham on Monday.

Murder defendant Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, left, listens while his co-defense counsel Terry Alford makes notes during a Monday, April 6, 2015 death penalty hearing for Hicks in Durham, N.C. Presiding Judge Orlando Hudson found the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students at Finley Forest residential complex in Chapel Hill in February 2015 made the Hicks case eligible for the death penalty. (Harry Lynch/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Judge Orlando Hudson Jr., ruled during a pre-trial hearing that Hicks is qualified for the death penalty because the state of North Carolina has found at least two aggravating factors were present in the shooting deaths of Deah BarakatYusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha.

“The state has established the existence of at least two statutory aggravating factors: one, that this crime was committed in the commission of another murder; and two, that the defendant engaged in other crimes of violence at the time of this murder,” Hudson said.

Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried said much of the investigation by local and federal agencies surrounding the Chapel Hill shooting has been completed.

“There are a few more discoveries that need to be turned over,” he said.

Those discoveries include medical examiners’ reports for Hicks, the forensic extraction from Hicks’ computer hard drive and additional information from the federal investigation of the shooting, which requires a court order, he said.

Dornfried listed forensic evidence linking Hicks to the crime, including DNA evidence showing the blood of Yusor Abu-Salha on Hicks’ pants, gunshot residue on Hicks’ pants and shirt and a ballistic match from shell casings found at the scene to a firearm that was recovered from Hicks’ vehicle.

In addition to the three first-degree murder charges, Hicks is also charged with discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Dornfried said Hicks told police that on Feb. 10, he retrieved a firearm from his residence and went to the residence of Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, where Barakat answered the door and a brief interaction ensued.

Dornfried said no physical altercation took place before Hicks pulled out his firearm, which he had concealed, and shot Barakat multiple times. Dornfried said Hicks then fired shots at Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha, who were standing in the apartment’s common area.

“They were alive after the first volley of shots toward them,” he said. “Each woman was then shot in the head.”

Dornfried said Hicks shot Barakat a final time in the head before exiting the apartment. He said Hicks turned himself in to law enforcement shortly thereafter.

“The evidence is sufficient to proceed with each one of these murders as a capital case,” Dornfried said.

Hicks will be represented at trial by attorneys Stephen Freedman and Terry Alford. Dornfried and Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis will represent the state of North Carolina in prosecuting the case.

Hicks’ next court date will be in the first week of June.

District Attorney Roger Echols said the state is not planning to pursue a hate crime charge for Hicks, who some believe felt hatred toward the three victims because they were Muslim.

“If it’s appropriate based on the federal investigation, I’m sure they will bring those charges,” he said.

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