DURHAM, N.C. - A man charged with first-degree murder in the killing of three Muslim college students can face a death penalty trial, a judge ruled Monday.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. said prosecutors had two aggravating factors and that is "death penalty qualified."
Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Feb. 10 killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat; his wife, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
Prosecutors said Hicks confessed, and that he was arrested with the murder weapon. Ballistics matched the handgun to shell casings recovered at the apartment and there was gunshot residue on his hands and one of the victim's blood was on his pants, prosecutors said.
Police say Hicks, 46, appears to have been motivated by a long-running dispute over parking spaces at the Chapel Hill condominium complex where he lived in the same building as Barakat and his wife.
The victims' families are adamant that they were targeted because they were Muslims and have pushed for hate-crime charges. The FBI is conducting what it has called a "parallel preliminary inquiry" to the homicide investigation to determine whether any federal laws were violated, including hate crime statutes.
Search warrants filed by Chapel Hill police said Barakat was shot in the head near the entrance to his condo. The two women were found in or near the kitchen. Eight spent shell casings were found at the crime scene, investigators said.
Earlier search warrants listed a dozen firearms recovered from the condo unit Hicks shared with his wife, in addition to the handgun he had with him when he turned himself in after the shootings.
Hicks, who was unemployed and studying to become a paralegal, posted online that he was an atheist and a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Neighbors described him as an angry man who had frequent confrontations over parking or loud music, sometimes with a gun holstered at his hip. His social media posts often discussed firearms, including a photo of a .38-caliber revolver.