The North Carolina man who fatally shot three Muslim American students in their Chapel Hill home in 2015 pleaded guilty to murder on Wednesday.
Craig Stephen Hicks pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder for killing 23-year-old Deah Barakat; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her 19-year-old sister Razan Abu-Salha.
Hicks, 50, accepted three consecutive life sentences without parole as part of his plea deal, two months after the district attorney dropped plans to seek the death penalty in an effort to speed up the proceedings.
At the time of the shootings, Barakat was a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina (UNC). He and Yusor had married less than two months before their deaths and were "lovebirds," their relatives said.
Yusor had graduated from North Carolina State University in 2014 and was about to begin dental studies at UNC. Her sister, Razan, was studying architecture and environmental design at North Carolina State University and had recently made the dean's list in her first semester.
The case sparked global outrage and calls to charge Hicks with hate crimes. The Chapel Hill police had initially said Hicks shot his three young Muslim neighbors over a parking dispute at the condo complex. However, the victims' families believe Hicks targeted them because they were Muslim.
"It is about cold-hearted madness and murder,” District Attorney Satana Deberry told the court on Wednesday, according to the Charlotte Observer. “It is not about parking.”
In a powerful and emotional statement to the court, Barakat's sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, said "Deah, Yusor and Razan were murdered in an Islamophobic hate crime. Let's call this what it is: A terrorist attack."
Hicks' social media account contained multiple anti-religion posts. He had also developed a notorious reputation as a "parking vigilante" in his condo complex, and someone who was obsessed with noises and parked cars, prosecutors said. He was also a "gun fanatic" who had previously confronted people of color with a firearm.
A cellphone video recorded by Barakat that showed the moments leading up to his death was played in court for the first time on Wednesday. The three victims were having dinner together when Hicks knocked on their door on Feb. 10, 2015.
“You’ve got three cars in the lot and I don’t have a parking spot,” Hicks told Barakat in the video, the New York Times reported.
None of the three victims had their cars parked in Hicks' spot at the time and only two of their cars were present in the lot.
The video showed Barakat speaking politely with Hicks, contradicting Hicks' allegations to investigators that Barakat had insulted him and had come at him with a knife.
"If you’re going to be disrespectful towards me, I am going to be disrespectful of you," Hicks told Barakat in the video.
As Barakat began telling Hicks that he was allowed to park in other spaces, Hicks pulled out his gun and shot him eight times. Razan and Yusor were heard screaming in the video. Hicks then entered their condo and shot both women at close range.
Family members of the victims broke down after the video was shown in court on Wednesday.
In a statement after the sentencing, the victims' family said that the video "clearly demonstrates the hatred the killer had for the victims, the disrespect with which he approached them, and the the disregard he had for their beautiful lives."
"We were able to reclaim the narrative and definitely put to bed the false claim that these murders were over a parking dispute," the statement said.
Barakat's sister, Suzanne Barakat recalled the last time she saw her brother and sister-in-law as they shared their "aspirations and goals as future dentists" during a gathering at their family's home in January 2015.
"We all laughed and giggled together as they explored their bright future together," Suzanne Barakat said.
She recalled her brother and Yusor discussing their upcoming dental relief trip for Syrian refugee children in Turkey and hearing about how they were selling toothbrushes at their local mosque to fund supplies for the trip they never took.
"We both stood in the middle of his room as he gave me the last bear hug upon which I looked up at him, neck crooked and all, and said, 'I have never been more proud of you than I am in this moment,'" Barakat's sister told the court.
On Wednesday, prosecutor Kendra Montgomery-Blinn described Hicks as an "angry and bitter man" whose American dream was "slipping from his grasp," the Charlotte Observer reported.
He had lost his job, his third marriage was in trouble, and he often complained that his condo complex was turning into a college dorm, Montgomery-Blinn said.
Hicks had asked the court to excuse him from the courtroom before the victims' family gave their statements.
"I like to think I’ve got empathy, but I look at the way I act with stuff and really wonder if I do,” he said in an interview, the New York Times reported. “I feel sorry for the family members, but at the same time I really don’t want to deal with them, and that would be empathy."
However, he withdrew his request after the father of the two women, Mohammad Abu-Salha, strongly objected to his request in a letter to the court.
"In no just world should he be able to murder children and not face the words of the families whose lives he has destroyed," Abu-Salha wrote.