DURHAM, N.C. >> Moments after a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to gunning down three Muslim university students, a prosecutor played a cellphone video of the slayings in the courtroom today as one of the victims’ relatives fainted, others wept openly and a man hurled an expletive at the confessed killer.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 50, entered the plea to three counts of first-degree murder in a packed Durham courtroom. It came two months after incoming District Attorney Satana Deberry dropped plans to seek the death penalty in hopes of concluding a case that she said had languished too long.
“I’ve wanted to plead guilty since day one,” Hicks told Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. The judge said Hicks had agreed as part of his plea to accept three consecutive life sentences without parole and 64 to 89 months for the crime of discharging a gun into a building.
Police say that in February 2015, Hicks burst into a condo in Chapel Hill owned by 23-year-old Deah Barakat and fatally shot Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her 19-year-old sister Razan Abu-Salha.
At the time of the shootings, Chapel Hill police said Hicks claimed he was provoked by competition over parking spaces at the condo complex. Relatives of the victims said their family members were targeted because they were Muslim, and they asked federal authorities to pursue hate-crime charges. Authorities later indicated they did not have sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute Hicks on those charges.
Moments after Hicks’ entered his plea, Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn played a cellphone video of the slayings as the victims’ parents and siblings watched from the front row. At one point, Barakat’s older sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, fainted. She later appeared at a news conference with other family members and an attorney said she was OK.
Women wept openly and a young man hurled an expletive at Hicks after watching the video, shown on a large pull-down screen and on two flat-screen televisions that were used to give people in the courtroom a better view. The prosecutor also showed a video of Hicks’ confession and a series of still photos portraying happy moments in the victims’ lives.
Montgomery-Blinn said Deah Barakat had turned on his phone’s video to capture an exchange with Hicks, who she said was often seething during his previous encounters with the victims.
The video shows Hicks complaining that Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters are using three parking spaces. When Barakat responds that they’re not taking any more spaces than condo rules allow, Hicks pulls a gun from his holster and fires several times.
The phone drops to the floor inside the front door, the sounds of women screaming can be heard, and then several more shots are heard.
“In 36 seconds, Mr. Hicks executed three people,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
Barakat was shot several times as he stood in his doorway, autopsy results showed. His wife and her sister were shot in the head at close range inside the condo.
Barakat, a dental student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Yusor Abu-Salha had been married for less than two months, and she had just been accepted to the dental school. Razan had just made the dean’s list in her first semester at North Carolina State University. All three were making plans to visit Turkey during their coming summer break to volunteer in a dental clinic at a camp for Syrian war refugees.
The victims’ families and Muslim advocacy groups had asked federal authorities to pursue hate-crimes charges against Hicks. Joe Cheshire, a prominent defense attorney who has been working with the victims’ families and guiding them through the legal process over the past four years, said at a news conference after the plea hearing that authorities could not discount Hicks’ initial explanation that the violence was provoked by a parking space dispute. He said they could not satisfy themselves that his actions met all the required conditions of bringing a successful hate crime prosecution.
Cheshire said the families were not happy with the decision.
“It hurt a lot of feelings and it added to the false narrative,” he said. “Our government failed this family and our multicultural democracy.”
During the hearing, Hicks listened attentively as Montgomery-Blinn described him as a man who was watching the American Dream slip away while the victims were pursuing it. She said Hicks’ third marriage was disintegrating and he’d recently quit his job in anger after workers described him as constantly playing computer sniper games.
“The defendant was an angry and bitter man,” Montgomery-Blinn said.