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U.S. judge allows possible death penalty in Muslims' killings

Craig Hicks, 46, was indicted on three counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of a newlywed couple

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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, prosecutors from the Durham County District Attorney’s Office offered evidence of aggravating factors to make their case 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.

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

For now, he said, “First-degree murder is the highest crime you can be convicted of and that is our focus.”

Police have said a dispute over parking may have prompted the killings.

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.