A man accused of shooting dead three Muslim college students in North Carolina may face the death penalty if convicted, a judge has ruled.Craig Stephen Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder for the 10 February killings in Chapel Hill.
He is accused of gunning down Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
On Monday, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr ruled that Hicks was “death penalty qualified” after hearing evidence in the case.
Relatives of the victims said they were targeted for their religious beliefs and have called for hate crime charges.
Police have said they suspect the shooting was motivated by a long-running dispute over parking at the apartment complex Hicks shared with the victims.
The 46-year-old kept pictures and notes on his computer detailing parking activity in the lots around his apartment, according to police search warrants.
Mr Barakat was shot in the head near the entrance to his apartment, according to court documents. Both women were found in or near the kitchen.
Investigators said eight shell casings were found at the crime scene.
Hicks, whom neighbours described as an angry man who had frequent confrontations over parking and loud music, surrendered to police after the shootings.
The paralegal student described himself in online posts as an atheist and a staunch gun rights advocate.
The killings saw the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter trending on social media, and thousands gathered for a prayer vigil in the days following the shootings.
President Barack Obama also issued a statement condemning the “brutal and outrageous” murders.
The FBI opened what it called a “parallel preliminary inquiry” to the investigation to determine whether any federal laws were violated, including hate crime statutes.