What is a hate crime?
Posted February 13, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — The parents of three Muslim students who were shot to death in their Chapel Hill condominium this week have said they believe their children were targeted because of their faith.
The allegation has raised questions about whether the suspect could be charged with a hate crime. But legal experts say peering into the mind of a suspect to determine whether bias was motive is a difficult task.
“Designating this crime as a hate crime really may not affect the punishment or how this case is tried, but it will help jurors in understanding why this terrible crime happened,” said Colon Willoughby, a former Wake County district attorney who is now in private practice.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were found dead Tuesday evening at the newlywed couple's home about 3 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who lived in the same condominium complex as the victims, turned himself in and was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Investigators have said the shootings stemmed from a long-standing dispute over parking at the complex. They have not determined whether race or religion was a factor.
In North Carolina, there is no such charge as “hate crime.” The judicial term is ethnic intimidation. When added to assault cases, the charge can increase the level of punishment.
But Willoughby said when someone is charged with murder, that charge supercedes anything else. To attach ethnic intimidation to it can better help a jury make a decision, he said, but proving it is a challenge for any prosecutor.
“As a prosecutor, you look for evidence of things that they have done, things they may have said, things that will help the jury look into the mind of someone and try to understand what their motivation was,” Willoughby said.
Gregory Baker, the state's law enforcement commissioner, said investigators need proof to charge someone with a hate crime.
"Investigators are looking for clear and compelling evidence that the person who perpetrated the crime did so based on a particular belief or bias," he said.
Federal authorities are working with local law enforcement on the Chapel Hill shootings, but Baker said that doesn't necessarily mean the crime will become a federal case.
"Oftentimes when the FBI looks at (a hate crime) exclusively, it's going to be a cold case," he said. An example would be something from the civil rights era.
Willoughby said he thinks prosecutors can find impartial jurors in the case even though it has attracted international attention. He said the key will be a thorough investigation in order to uncover the motive and help a jury understand the crime.