Craig Hicks, the man accused of killing three Muslim students in 2015, pleaded guilty to their murders and received three consecutive life sentences on Wednesday. The families have been seeking closure in the case for four years.
At the time of the shooting, Deah Barakat (23) was in his second year at the UNC School of Dentistry. Yusor Abu-Salha (21), his wife, was planning to join the School of Dentistry that following fall. Razan Abu-Salha (19), Yusor's younger sister, was an architectural student at NC State University's School of Design. Yusor and Deah had celebrated their wedding just six weeks before the attack.
Hicks claimed he killed the students over a parking dispute, but the case sparked a nation-wide debate over whether it constituted a hate crime. At the sentencing on Wednesday, Deah's older sister, Suzanne, said she felt insulted and traumatized that the case wasn't considered a terrorist attack.
"Somehow, when a white man commits gruesome acts of violence, he's a lone wolf, mentally deranged, or driven by a parking dispute," she said.
Last week, the Durham District Attorney's office entered an affidavit into the record. It was from the office's expert witness, Dr. Samuel Sommers, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Tufts University. In his affidavit, Sommers discussed the idea of "intergroup bias." He explained that this kind of bias can affect the way a person thinks, feels and behaves around members of an outgroup (them) versus members of an ingroup (us).
"These were not random victims of a parking dispute. These victims were seen and interacted with differently because of who they were and because of how the defendant saw them," Sommers said during his testimony on Wednesday. "I believe the evidence indicates a very reasonable probability that that was the case."
But under North Carolina law, hate crime statutes only apply to misdemeanor charges, making it inapplicable to Hicks's felony case. Federal prosecutors also found this case did not constitute a hate crime. Joe Cheshire, the family's attorney, offered a statement after the sentencing.
"If our federal law is not changed to consider an act like this as a hate crime, then it should be rewritten and should be named after these three beautiful children," Cheshire said.
The Barakat and Abu-Salha families believe that the Chapel Hill Police Department spread the narrative that Hicks's actions were motivated by a parking dispute rather than by ethnic and religious prejudice. In Cheshire's closing statements to the press, he said that police make decisions in turmoil and can sometimes make mistakes. He added that the family was looking for a public apology.
In 2016, Chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill Police Department spoke with WUNC and said he regretted including the parking dispute into the narrative surrounding Deah, Yusor, and Razan's deaths.
On Wednesday evening, after the sentencing, Blue released another statement to the Town of Chapel Hill.
"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," the statement read. "To the Abu-Salha and Barakat families, we extend our sincere regret that any part of our message all those years ago added to the pain you experienced through the loss of Our Three Winners."