There is still a struggle in the media, in the community and in the courtroom to put a label on the Chapel Hill killings on Feb. 11. The victims were three Muslim American college students, the confessed shooter a 46-year-old white man.
The defendant, Craig Stephen Hicks, was reportedly upset about parking at the condominium development where they all lived. There are questions about whether he had confronted the victims specifically about parking in the wrong place, but neighbors confirm that Hicks was very concerned about the situation.
It is not clear if he ever expressed animosity toward Muslims or members of any other faith. Durham County prosecutors are not sure whether to classify this as a hate crime, but they will seek the death penalty. That will be decided in a court hearing next month. Without the death penalty, a conviction would mean life in prison without possibility of parole.
Local police called on the FBI for help with the investigation, but the explanation is a little murky. There is speculation that the FBI will find enough evidence to charge Hicks in federal court, where a hate crime is a much more serious matter.
North Carolina defines a hate crime as “an offense committed against a victim because of the victim’s race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.” (8 N.C. Index 4th Criminal Law § 1139) Still, there is no separate hate crime on the books. You will not find “hate crime” on a list of possible charges. The crimes are murder in the first or second degree, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, assault and so on.
The hate crime designation really has to do with sentencing. If a crime is motivated by race or religion, it is an aggravating factor used to increase the sentence. Remember, in structured sentencing there are aggravating factors that increase the sentence minimum and maximum and mitigating factors that decrease the sentence minimum and maximum.
Not so with the federal government. We’ll explain in our next post.
Source: The News & Observer, “DA to seek death penalty in North Carolina triple murder,” Anne Blythe, March 2, 2015