04/06/2015 05:59 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2015

Muslim Killings Suspect Could Face Death If Convicted


(Adds detail of evidence presented at hearing)

By Marti Maguire

DURHAM, N.C., April 6 (Reuters) - A North Carolina judge ruled on Monday that a man accused of killing three young Muslims in February could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

Craig Hicks, 46, was indicted on three counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of a newlywed couple who were his neighbors in Chapel Hill and the wife's sister, a college student.

During a brief court hearing, Hicks stared straight ahead, answering the judge's questions with "Yes, sir" before prosecutors presented evidence for pursuing the matter as a capital case.

The Feb. 10 deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, a student at North Carolina State University, drew international attention and inspired the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter on social media.

Their families contend that Hicks, a paralegal student who presented himself on Facebook as an atheist, was fueled by hatred toward the victims because of their Muslim faith.

Several family members of the victims attended the hearing but declined to comment.

Federal and local authorities are investigating whether a hate crime was committed, and more charges could be added against Hicks, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said.

"First-degree murder is the highest crime you can be convicted of and that is our focus," Echols said.

Hicks' blood was found on the pants of one of the victims, with gunshot residue on his hands, according to prosecutors presenting evidence to Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr.

Hicks turned himself in to police and had the firearm used in the shooting in his possession, Assistant Attorney Jim Dornfried said in court.

He said Hicks shot Barakat first, and then turned his gun on the two women, who were screaming.

"They were alive after the first volley and each of these women was then shot in the head," Dornfried said.

Dornfried said Hicks recalled arguing with the victims over parking.

Hicks kept pictures and notes on his computer about parking activity in the lots around his condominium about two miles from the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, according to police search warrants. (Reporting by Marti Maguire; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Leslie Adler, Letitia Stein and Ted Botha)