Deah Barakat, a UNC dental student, Yusor Abu-Salha, who was about to enter the UNC Adams School of Dentistry and Razan Abu-Salha, an N.C. State undergraduate student, were murdered in Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha’s home while having dinner on Feb. 10, 2015. Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha had gotten married only six weeks before their deaths.
Chapel Hill Police originally attributed the murders to a parking dispute between the newlywed couple and Hicks. Hicks routinely had aggravated encounters with neighbors over parking rules.
The families of the victims said confrontations with neighbors and anti-religion social media posts proved otherwise. Hicks’s confrontations were more aggressive when he was dealing with non-white neighbors, prosecutors said. He often tried to intimidate non-white neighbors by showing the outline of a gun tucked into his clothing.
On the night of the murders, Hicks went to the home of Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha with one of the several firearms he owned. When Hicks arrived at their door, Deah Barakat took out his phone to record the interaction. Prosecutors said Deah Barakat was collecting evidence to aid him and his wife in getting a restraining order against Hicks.
Hicks did not know Deah Barakat was filming when he shot Deah Barakat. Hicks did not know the phone continued to record as he then entered the home and shot Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha.
After he was arrested, Hicks told police that the three students were rude and shouted profanities at him. He also claimed that Deah Barakat came at him.
The video recovered from Deah Barakat’s phone, which was shown at the sentencing, proved these claims to be lies.
Prosecutors said Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were shot within 36 seconds of Hicks arriving.
“To claim Razan, Yusor and Deah’s murders were about a parking space is not only ridiculous, but insulting,” said Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry.
“As the family once said to me, this case is no more about a parking space than Rosa Parks was resting her feet.”
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue released a statement Wednesday afternoon expressing regret for the original message Chapel Hill Police gave soon after the murders.
"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."
The families of the victims fought for the murders to be prosecuted as hate crimes.Joe Cheshire, an attorney for the families, said authorities did not feel they had enough evidence to pursue federal hate crime charges.
North Carolina's hate crime statute, which can only be applied to misdemeanors, exists to give the state the ability to punish otherwise minor crimes more severely. Adding the hate-crime designation to a first-degree murder charge that already carries the harshest punishment possible would be legally meaningless.
But it was never really about the legal definition of a hate crime. It was about defining the motivations behind Hicks’s hate-filled attack.
The District Attorney's office aimed to do that through testimony from Tufts University psychology professor Samuel Sommers, who analyzed Hicks’s case.
A researcher, Sommers said he thinks it is likely that bias played a role in Hicks’s actions.
“There are multiple aspects of interactions with the victims and the defendant that show the hallmarks of these victims being seen differently because of who they were, because of, whether it’s a congregation of religious and ethnic background or the perception that they were just renters.” Sommers said. “There are a variety of perceptions the defendant seemed to have as indicated in his statements and previous interactions with them that indicate that he viewed them as the other.”
Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha’s father; Yousef Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha’s brother; Suzanne Barakat, Deah Barakat’s sister; and Ferris Barakat, Deah Barakat’s brother, spoke at the sentencing.
They all reiterated the same sentiment: the murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were not because of a parking dispute; they stemmed from hate.
Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha’s father addressed Hicks directly.
“Today you show the world that they are more American than you are,” Mohammad said. “And they lived as Americans and died as Americans.”
Wednesday’s sentencing reclaimed the story surrounding Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha’s murders and let the court record show the truth behind Hicks’s crimes.
“They were happy, passionate, successful, loving, and you hated them for it,” Yousef said. “You hated them for being Muslim.”