On Wednesday, a North Carolina man was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison for the 2015 murders of three young Muslims ― a crime that was initially framed as a parking dispute in spite of the perpetrator’s anti-Muslim and anti-religion social media posts.
Craig Hicks, 50, pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder for shooting and killing Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohamed, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19. Hicks also pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.
Family members and friends of the victims were dismayed when authorities suggested the murders were connected to an argument over parking, a narrative the media adopted as well. Loved ones spoke in court not just about the loss of the victims, but about the injustice of having to fight to name the murders for what they were: hate crimes motivated by Islamophobia and bigotry. Even amid a rise of Islamophobic hate crimes, and increased examples of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the workplace and from government officials, Muslims’ concerns about growing intolerance and hostility have largely gone unheeded.
Law enforcement officials finally acknowledged the hateful nature of Hicks’ actions in a statement released Wednesday in conjunction with the district attorney’s office ― a stark contrast to their initial assessment in 2015. But the victims’ families said the road to justice, including reclaiming the media narrative, has been a long and painful one, and that they’ve had to fight to convey the genuine dangers of the Islamophobia that ultimately killed their family members.
“Do you know how insulting, hurtful, demeaning and traumatizing it is to take the words of the murderer who turned himself in smiling as the official version of events and call it a parking dispute?” said Suzanne Barakat. Her brother Deah, a dental student at Chapel Hill, was the first to be shot by Hicks.
Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry emphasized Wednesday that the crime “was not about parking,” in spite of how law enforcement officials initially framed the murders.
“Today was about setting the record straight,” Deberry said during a press conference after the proceedings. “It was about three powerful and promising young lives extinguished in less than a minute. It was about futures that will never happen, and a past that we fail to reckon with. It is about exposing the hate, bias and privilege that substituted for the lives of Razan, Yusor, and Deah.”
Hicks’ “hate of Islam drove him to kill three innocent people,” she added.
In the aftermath of the 2015 murders, Chapel Hill police said the shooting occurred over a parking dispute within the condo complex where Hicks, Deah and Yusor resided. Yusor’s sister Razan was visiting the newlywed couple for dinner the evening of the murders. News reports noted that Hicks was “undeniably obsessed with parking.”
But the families of the victims, as well as the wider Muslim community, argued that the killings were a clear-cut case of anti-Muslim bigotry. Prosecutors later noted that Hicks only brandished his gun at the people he would eventually kill, and never at their white neighbors. Yusor told her husband as much in text messages later obtained by prosecutors.
Even so, local and national media outlets immediately led their coverage with the parking dispute narrative, a move that critics said was an example of a larger problem with mainstream media coverage of Muslims. Studies have shown that depictions of Muslims in news media tend to lack depth and nuance. Often the only media attention Muslims receive is negative, with one study noting that perpetrators of violence who were perceived to be Muslim received seven times more media coverage than their non-Muslim counterparts. In contrast, when Muslims are the victims of crime, like in the Chapel Hill case, their stories are often dismissed, devalued and largely ignored.
One of the reasons officials and media outlets quickly accepted the parking dispute narrative was their inability to recognize and understand Islamophobia, said Todd Green, a professor at Luther College and the author of ”Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.”
“The idea that Muslims are victims is very difficult to accept in a country right now that only sees Muslims and only tell stories of Muslims as victimizers,” Green told HuffPost.
Authorities did not ultimately charge Hicks with a hate crime, even though the district attorney acknowledged his actions were motivated by anti-Muslim hate. Chapel Hill police also said on Wednesday that the murders “were about more than simply a parking dispute,” an announcement that was welcomed by the family. Hate crime statutes in North Carolina are only applicable to misdemeanors and do not apply to felonies, such as murder. The families of the victims are trying to change that law.
During Wednesday’s arraignment, Samuel Sommers, a Tufts University professor and psychologist, noted the evident bias in the case and dismissed the idea that the murders were solely about parking.
The victims “were not simply random victims of the violent outburst of a neighbor frustrated over parking, but rather that their ethnic and religious backgrounds played a role in how Hicks perceived them, interacted with them and ultimately shot and killed them,” Sommers said.
Defense attorneys at first objected to including Sommers’ conclusions at the sentencing, arguing that their client had already agreed to the maximum sentencing, but their objections were overruled.
“Professor Sommers’ testimony shows what our community has known all along: Deah, Yusor and Razan were murdered in an Islamophobic hate crime,” said Suzanne Barakat. “Craig Hicks entered the safety of Deah and Yusor’s home and executed them because he didn’t like the way they looked. Deah, Yusor and Razan died because they were Muslim.”
Farris Barakat, Deah’s brother, turned his seat away from his brother’s murderer during the trial and looked directly at the press box. He had a message for them too.
“I ask the press and the media to understand that today is about justice, but it’s about that narrative that you guys put out, too,” he said. “This was as much a longstanding dispute over parking as Rosa Parks was over a bus seat.”
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