Hate crime prosecutions rare in NC, often difficult to prove

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Hate crime prosecutions rare in NC, often difficult to prove
Many are speculating the Chapel Hill victims' religion may have played a role in the incident.
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 11: Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, sits in the Durham County courtroom for his first appearance in the shooting deaths of three University of North Carolina students on February 11, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Hicks has been charged with three counts of first degree murder and is being held without bond. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 11: Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, enters the Durham County courtroom for his first appearance in the shooting deaths of three University of North Carolina students on February 11, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Hicks has been charged with three counts of first degree murder and is being held without bond. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: A picture of slain Muslim students who were shot dead in Chapel Hill, is seen at a makeshift memorial during a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington,USA on February 12, 2015. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial is made during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10, 2015 slayings in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police investigating the murders said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A candlelight vigil for murder victims Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Craig Stephen Hicks is accused of shooting the three students on Tuesday. (Al Drago/The News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
People stand before a makeshift memorial after a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10, 2015 slayings in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police investigating the murders said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Dentistry students and others huddle together during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10, 2015 slayings in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police investigating the murders said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of a shooting scene at a condominium complex near Summerwalk Circle February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Police probing the murder of three Muslim students by a North Carolina man said Wednesday they were studying whether the slayings were racially motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10 shootings in the university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police emphasized that initial investigations indicated a dispute between Hicks and his victims over parking spaces may have been the catalyst for a shooting spree which claimed the lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Namee Barakat, father of Deah Shaddy Barakat(Back to camera), and his wife Leila Barakat leave after a press conference at Swift Creek Community Center February 11, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Police probing the murder of three Muslim students by a North Carolina man said Wednesday they were studying whether the slayings were racially motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10 shootings in the university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police emphasized that initial investigations indicated a dispute between Hicks and his victims over parking spaces may have been the catalyst for a shooting spree which claimed the lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Loved ones speak during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after the February 10, 2015 slayings in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide. Police investigating the murders said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Several of the concrete bumpers at Building 20 in the Finley Forest apartment and condominium complex are marked 'reserved' on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C. The building was the scene Tuesday of a triple homicide in which resident Craig Stephen Hicks is accused in the shooting deaths of three students, two of whom lived adjacent to Hicks, possibly over an ongoing parking dispute. (Harry Lynch/The News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
A woman cries as she watches photos projected on a large screen of murder victims Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Craig Stephen Hicks is accused of shooting the three students on Tuesday. (Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: People hold a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington on February 12, 2015 for three Muslim students who were shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: People hold a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington on February 12, 2015 for three Muslim students who were shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Palestinian protester holds a poster showing three young Muslims who were killed in the US during a protest by Palestinians against terrorism on February 13, 2015 before a demonstration against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Bilin, west of Ramallah. Deah Shaddy Barakat (L on the poster), his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were recently killed in North Carolina in the US. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, USA - February 12: People pray at the beginning of a vigil for Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, USA on February 12, 2015. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, USA - February 12: Friends and family members pray at a vigil for Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, USA on February 12, 2015. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: A man holds a placard during a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington on February 12, 2015 for three Muslim students who were shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man holds a placard during a vigil for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at Dupont Circle on February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. The three were killed by a neighbour in what police said was a dispute over parking and possibly a hate crime. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A young Muslim girl holds a candlelight during a vigil at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles on February 12, 2015 for the three Muslim students who were fatally shot in North Carolina. The families of three Muslim students shot dead by a white neighbor have reiterated calls for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Ture Nkrumah attends a vigil held by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Dupont Circle February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. The vigil was held to honor three young Muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were recently shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Supporters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations hold a vigil in Dupont Circle February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. The vigil was held to honor three young Muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were recently shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Kheira Benkreira (L) and Hasnia Bekkadja (R) attend a vigil held by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Dupont Circle February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. The vigil was held to honor three young Muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were recently shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12 : Mourners and people from the Islamic Association of Raleigh attend a service at a nearby soccer field February 12, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Community members and loved ones gathered to mourn the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha who were shot Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12 : Mourners and people from the Islamic Association of Raleigh attend a service at a nearby soccer field February 12, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Community members and loved ones gathered to mourn the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha who were shot Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12 : Mourners and people from the Islamic Association of Raleigh attend a service at a nearby soccer field February 12, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Community members and loved ones gathered to mourn the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha who were shot Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: People hold a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington on February 12, 2015 for three Muslim students who were shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Muslim students Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead at their home on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Relatives of the three Muslim college students killed in North Carolina are pressing for hate crime charges against the alleged shooter, but legal experts say such cases are relatively rare and can be difficult to prove.

Police in Chapel Hill say they have yet to uncover any evidence that Craig Stephen Hicks acted out of religious animus, though they are investigating the possibility. As a potential motive, they cited a longtime dispute over parking spaces at the condo community where Hicks and the victims lived.

Hicks, 46, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

The FBI is now conducting a "parallel preliminary inquiry" to determine whether any federal laws, including hate crime laws, were violated in the case.

Search warrants filed in a court Friday showed Hicks listed a dozen firearms taken from his condo unit. The warrants list four handguns recovered from the home where he lived with his wife, in addition to a pistol the suspect had with him when he turned himself in after the shootings. Warrants also listed two shotguns and six rifles, including a military-style AR-15 carbine, and a large cache of ammunition.

The case spurred international outrage.

A press release Saturday from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world's largest bloc of Muslim countries, says the group's leader thanks the American people for "rejecting the murder which bear the symptoms of a hate crime." Secretary General Iyad Madani also says the slaying of the students has heightened international concerns about "rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts" in the United States.

"No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship," President Barack Obama said Friday in Washington. And in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply moved" by the thousands attending the victims' funeral this past week.

Jordan's Embassy in Washington said its ambassador visited the families Friday. Yusor Abu-Salha was born in Jordan, as where her parents. The younger sister was born in the U.S.

Family members say all three were shot in the head, though police aren't saying exactly how the victims died.

"This has hate crime written all over it," said Dr. Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, addressing the funeral service Thursday for his daughters and son-in-law. "It was not about a parking spot."

To win a hate-crime conviction, however, legal experts say prosecutors would have to prove Hicks deliberately targeted those killed because of their religion, race or national origin.

North Carolina does not have a specific "hate crime" statute, though its laws cover such acts of "ethnic intimidation" as hanging a noose, burning a cross or setting fire to a church.

Colon Willoughby, who recently retired after 27 years as the top prosecutor for North Carolina's largest county, said he could remember only a handful of such ethnic intimidation cases. The reason, the former District Attorney for Wake County says, is that the defendants often already faced potential charges with stiffer criminal penalties than the comparatively light punishments carried by an ethnic intimidation conviction.

Hicks will likely face either the death penalty or life in prison if convicted of the murder charges, he noted, adding any evidence of motive would be important to prosecutors.

"'Hate crime' is really just another way of describing the motive for why a crime was committed," Willoughby said. "As a prosecutor, you want the jury to understand the motive for the crime and you would present the very same information ... look at his mindset, and use these things to prove motive."

Hicks, who was unemployed and taking community college classes, posted online that he was a staunch advocate of Second Amendment rights. Neighbors described him as an angry man in frequent confrontations over parking or loud music, often with a gun holstered at the hip. His social media posts often discussed firearms, including a photo posted of a .38-caliber revolver.

An avowed atheist, Hicks appeared critical of all faiths in Facebook posts.

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols, with jurisdiction over the shootings, said he hasn't decided whether to bring any ethnic intimidation charges in the case.

Federal authorities could potentially bring separate civil rights charges against Hicks. Federal hate-crimes laws give prosecutors wide latitude to bring charges for violent acts triggered by race, ethnicity, religion or perceived sexual orientation.

In 2012 when statistics were last available for such a tally, law enforcement agencies nationwide reported 5,796 "hate crime incidents." It's unclear how many yielded criminal convictions.

Meanwhile, experts said it would be highly unusual for federal authorities to step in if state officials have already won murder convictions with lengthy prison time.

"If the investigation does not uncover any obvious bias, then it would be very difficult for the federal government to bring a case as well," said ex-federal prosecutor Kami Chavis Simmons, director of the criminal justice program Wake Forest University School of Law. "At either the state or federal level, proving a hate crime is a high burden."

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