The man charged with killing three Muslim university students in the US state of North Carolina will face a death penalty trial after prosecutors told a judge they had strong and incriminating evidence that includes the blood from one of the victims found on the accused shooter's pants.
After a brief hearing on Monday, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. ruled that Craig Stephen Hicks is "death penalty qualified".
Hicks, who remained handcuffed throughout the court proceedings, showed no visible emotion as the judge announced his decision.
He is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the February 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.
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Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried said at the preliminary hearing that Hicks was taken into custody while in possession of a .357-caliber handgun that ballistics testing had matched to the eight shell casings recovered at the victims' apartment.
Police have said Hicks, 46, appeared to have been motivated by a long-running dispute over parking spaces at the condominium complex near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he lived in the same building as dental student Barakat and his wife.
Dornfried said on Monday that Hicks had revealed details about the killings while under questioning by investigators.
The victims' families are adamant that they were targeted because they were Muslims and have pushed for hate-crime charges. They sat in the second row of the courtroom and declined to comment after the hearing.
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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.
To support the death penalty under North Carolina law, prosecutors must show Hicks' alleged crimes had aggravating factors. Hicks is being held at a state prison in Raleigh pending trial.