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North Carolina Killings: What Is a Hate Crime?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 12, 2015 11:03 AM

After the shooting deaths of three Muslim students in North Carolina, some are calling for hate crime charges. How are hate crimes defined in that state?

Craig Stephen Hicks is accused of shooting Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, each in the head, in a Chapel Hill condominium complex February 10. While relatives and some Muslim groups contend the killings were religiously motivated, prosecutors say it's too early to know whether religion played a role, The Wall Street Journal reports.

So what does North Carolina's hate crime statute actually say? And would the state's hate crime laws apply to Hicks's prosecution?

Crimes Committed With Ethnic Animosity

Although North Carolina Statute 14-3 enhances punishments for "misdemeanors, infamous offenses, [and] offenses committed ... with ethnic animosity," it appears to only apply to misdemeanors. Specifically, the law states:

"If any Class 2 or Class 3 misdemeanor is committed because of the victim's race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin, the offender shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If any Class A1 or Class 1 misdemeanor offense is committed because of the victim's race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin, the offender shall be guilty of a Class H felony."

North Carolina also has a statute, 14-401.14, which makes assault based on "race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin" a Class 1 misdemeanor.

It appears that neither statute would apply to the deaths of Barakat, Mohammad, and Abu-Salha, as the killings (whether premeditated or not) are being prosecuted as felonies. Hicks, 46, is currently charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Federal Hate Crime Laws

At the federal level, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 created a new federal law that criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury because of religion. Although this law could be applied to Hicks, federal prosecutors have yet to open an investigation at this time.

Chapel Hill police believe the shooting may have been sparked by a parking dispute, and Hicks's wife claims he was not prejudiced. Whether state or federal prosecutors will seek hate crime enhancements may depend on new evidence to support religious or ethnic bias coming to light.

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