Hate crimes

Did Craig Hicks Murder His Neighbors Because They Were Muslims? Should It Matter Legally?

The debate about whether the killer should have been prosecuted for federal hate crimes shows how the Justice Department targets defendants based on the opinions they express.

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Yesterday Craig Hicks pleaded guilty in state court to murdering three of his neighbors, all Muslim college students, at an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, four years ago. Hicks says he shot his victims—19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha; her 21-year-old sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and Yusor's 23-year-old husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat—because of a parking dispute. Their families believe he shot the students because he hates Muslims. The dispute illustrates the fuzziness of hate crime laws and the degree to which their enforcement hinges on speech that would otherwise be constitutionally protected.

North Carolina has several statutes aimed at crimes motivated by bigotry, but none of them applies to murder cases. That hardly seems to matter, since Hicks received three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. If he had been convicted of federal hate crimes, he might have received the death penalty. (Or he might not have.) But the argument about how to describe his crimes seems to be about the message his prosecution sends rather than the penalty he receives.

During a hearing last week, Hicks' lawyers tried to block expert testimony about "implicit bias." The New York Times reports that Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry "responded that Mr. Hicks was trying to avoid punishment for what she repeatedly called his 'white supremacist' worldview." That's a telling way of putting it, since people's opinions, no matter how ugly, are not supposed to be punishable by law in the United States.

If Hicks had been charged with federal hate crimes, prosecutors would have had to prove that he shot his victims "because of" their religion. According to a federal appeals court ruling that the Justice Department cited in explaining its decision not to take on the case, that would have required showing that Hicks would not have murdered his neighbors "but for" their religion, which would have been hard to do.

Prior to his crimes, Hicks was an outspoken atheist and critic of organized religion, a subject he discussed on social media. But the evidence of a specific anti-Muslim bias is less clear. "I've defended Muslims," he told the Times in a jailhouse interview. "I know Muslims. I take pity on them, the way society treats them like they are lesser people." He denied even knowing that his neighbors were Muslims, although the women wore headscarves and he contradicted himself by criticizing them for not properly observing Ramadan.

At the same time, Hicks was known to confront and quarrel with people of various backgrounds, especially over parking. This would hardly be the first case of murderous violence inspired by trivial issues.

Ripley Rand, then the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, met with the victims' relatives in 2015 but declined to prosecute Hicks. He told the Times (in the newspaper's paraphrase) that "the federal government was meant to intervene if local authorities could not or would not do their jobs," which "did not seem to be the case" here, since Hicks "seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in prison."

That is demonstrably not the Justice Department's general policy, since defendants such as Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof, Charlottesville killer James Fields, and Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers have been prosecuted for federal hate crimes even though state courts were clearly willing and able to handle the cases. Given such precedents, it is not hard to understand the frustration expressed by Mohammad Abu-Salha, father of the women Hicks killed.

"If a Muslim man knocked on a door and executed a Christian family in their home with no provocation, that would be called terrorism," Abu-Salha told the Times. "But we Muslims are soft targets."

Contrary to the implication, the crucial difference in this case seems to be the absence of evidence documenting the defendant's bigotry. Roof published a racist manifesto. Fields used "multiple social media accounts" to "express his beliefs regarding race, national origin, religion and other topics." Bowers posted anti-Semitic comments and said things "evincing an animus towards people of the Jewish faith." If Hicks had left a similar trail of hateful statements, it seems likely that the Justice Department would have intervened, notwithstanding North Carolina's undoubted willingness to prosecute and punish him.

The decision to charge someone with federal hate crimes exposes him to dual prosecutions for the same conduct, so he can be tried again if he is initially acquitted (or even if he is convicted). Federal prosecution also may increase the penalty he faces, changing a life sentence to execution or a short prison term to a long one. When the Justice Department makes that decision based on the views people have expressed, it is effectively targeting defendants for extra jeopardy and extra punishment because of their opinions. Instead of questioning such belief-based inequality, Americans have learned to demand it.

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27 responses to “Did Craig Hicks Murder His Neighbors Because They Were Muslims? Should It Matter Legally?

  1. All murders are equal, but some murders are more equal than others.

    1. Save that one for the next 9/11.

      Or the next pardon for a war criminal.

      1. Ah, I see – you’re a supporter of the death penalty and you’re disappointed that this guy got life instead of death? And you’re wishing a federal prosecution could have led to the death penalty?

        Otherwise I don’t see the relevance of your remark. I know of no movement to pardon this guy, war criminal or not.

  2. So tired of the discussion over whether to punish someone more severely over the disposition of the victim(s). Emotions should not be legislated. Hate is hate. To say someone who killed someone else because they were Muslim deserves a more sever punishment than one who kills someone else because they were fucking his wife is a ridiculous notion. Murder is murder.

    1. I think you do have to take the chances of recidivism into account. Punishment isn’t just supposed to be about vengeance. It’s primary purpose is supposed to be public safety. It takes a dangerous person off the streets. So motive does matter a bit in this regard. A person who murders his cheating wife is probably less likely to murder again than a person who murders over a parking dispute or a deep-seated racism. So motive should matter in sentencing, I think. It still wouldn’t affect this case, though. Hicks obviously is willing to kill people for trivial reasons, so it shouldn’t matter what those reasons are.

      1. Punishment isn’t just supposed to be about vengeance
        The fuck? Vengeance? Since when is punishment under the law about vengeance?

        1. re: vengeance – Since always.

          The “five objectives of a criminal justice system” are, according to all the standard text books and articles:
          – Retribution
          – Deterrence
          – Incapacitation
          – Rehabilitation
          – Restoration

          “Retribution” = “vengeance”. It is not the only point of the law but it is a point of the law.

          1. I see your math, but I disagree that they are “=”
            Vengeance is more akin to revenge than it is to retribution. Retribution is distributed. Vengeance is taken.

    2. Abortion is murder.

      The unborn are victims of the worst genocide in earths history.

      You’re right, it doesn’t matter why the cunt wants to murder them.

  3. Superficial diversity is so awesome that we have to create special classes under the law to promote and protect the imports

  4. No. Hate crimes and hate speech are bullshit concepts. Charge him for his actions. I’d advocate for the death penalty for him (as unpopular as that might be here.) That is, of course, unless there is a self-defense angle I’ve missed. Whether or not he hates his victims for whatever reason only helps clarify what murder charges are proper but is not justification for further charges.
    Hate crimes legislation is a bad idea because it actually criminalizes thought. Just because the charges are tied to actual crimes now does not mean they will remain so. We have plenty of examples in Europe where such a premise for law has been used to prosecute thoughts and nonviolent expression

    1. I think the idea is that not only was the crime committed, but there was also an implied threat to everyone in the community. Instead of holding a trial for each affected person in a community, they just lump it all in with the original crime.
      The flaw is that ANY crime can be considered to have an implied threat (burglary = implied threat against anyone with stuff, etc.).

  5. Taking into account what motivates the murder in other times may work to the benefit of the defendant. The law recognizes that sufficient unjustified provocation reduces a charge from murder to manslaughter and in cases of insanity the state of mind can completely absolve the defendant of guilt. Charging people more harshly for why they kill is just the same in the other direction. It’s academic anyone whenever someone kills 3 people in cold blood.

  6. Premeditated murder is premeditated murder weather it is predicated by hate or greed or any other reason. The use of emotions are only designed to inflame the jury and have no place in the “justice” system, not even in the phase to determine the punishment. If a person commits a crime that has a punishment of x to y then the punishment should be between x and y.

  7. Someone who commits multiple murders as a way to resolve a parking dispute should never breathe free air again. His other motivations are less generally dangerous.

    But if you are going to have hate crime laws, killing someone in a protected class cannot be evidence of a hate crime in itself, that is a circular argument.

  8. “If a Muslim man knocked on a door and executed a Christian family in their home with no provocation, that would be called terrorism”

    Yes, it is an unfortunate double-standard but the solution is to stop calling all crimes perpetrated by Muslims terrorism, not to start calling crimes perpetrated by Christians terrorism also

    1. What if the murders committed are terrorism?

      1. If its terrorism then its terrorism, but the problem is that people seem to think any murder committed by a Muslim is automatically terrorism, and others seem to think the solution is to think any murder committed by a non-Muslim is also automatically terrorism

    2. Uh, atheist – – –

  9. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not park in other peoples spots?

    1. That sounds like a parody of the short-skirt argument.

      1. “can’t we all just get along”

  10. So does a prosecutor of a hate crime have to prove that the prosecutor is clairvoyant, and can tell what people are thinking at the exact moment of a crime? Does the prosecutor need to pick 5 random people and prove to the judge and jury that the prosecutor can correctly identify their thoughts? Does the prosecutor have to prove that he can distinguish deeply held beliefs from on line sarcastic posts?
    Didn’t think so.
    There is no such thing as a hate crime. There are only criminal actions. His action of shooting three people is a crime, what the may or may not have been thinking at the time, and especially what he may or may not have thought before, is NOT a crime.
    Otherwise ol’ sleepy, creepy Joe would be in the slammer for thought rape.

  11. OK – well I’ll jump in and say that the federal hate crimes statute is perfectly reasonable.

    a. Because states still do have the potential to undercharge/acquit solely because they don’t like the victim either. And that is effectively a nullification of murder laws that directly affects a US citizen. That said, in that circumstance the feds should back off if the states don’t nullify murder statutes to avoid double jeopardy

    b. All murders are not equal if the intent of the murderer was to send an intimidating message to others beyond the direct victim. Obviously not easy to prove but this is the sort of instance where there is no double jeopardy cuz the crime is not directly the act of murder but is the act of intimidation by murder. Closer really to terrorism except that terrorism usually involves a much more overt and easier to prove sort of intimidation

    1. If a state is *unwilling* to give certain killers more than a slap on the wrist, I’d humbly suggest that a conspiracy charge against the cops and prosecutors – conspiracy to deny equal protection of the laws – would be the answer (the actual killer could be added as a co-conspirator – see, that’s a new charge, not double jeopardy).

      Or if the state is simply too *weak* to provide equal protection, that would be an argument for the feds stepping in more directly, providing the protection the state illegally denies due to its own weakness (eg, state Reconstructions governments and the Ku Klux Klan).

      Neither situation seems to apply here – the only strange thing about the prosecution is they didn’t seek the death penalty.

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