It would hardly seem controversial to assume that religion was a factor in the triple homicide of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last month, mostly because there aren’t many other explanations for the shooting. The victims were hardworking and valued members of their communities; Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, was planning to enroll in UNC next fall. Her husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was an accomplished dentistry student, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, studied environmental design and architecture at NC State University.
According to those who knew the victims, none had ever given the shooter, their neighbor Craig Hicks, any reason to feel ill will towards them. Hicks and his wife, however, maintain that the shootings were the culmination of an ongoing parking dispute. This explanation rings remarkably false to relatives of the victims and others who live in the area. No one had any trouble finding parking spots, and even if they had, a parking dispute seems an implausible motive for murder. Though Hick’s lawyer has blamed inadequate access to mental health services for Hick’s behavior, the shooter does not have a history to support this claim beyond the cyclical logic that sane people don’t shoot their neighbors over nothing, or even over parking. Hicks did, however, frequently make anti-religious posts on Facebook, and his hostility only began to make the victims uncomfortable, relatives reported, after the headscarf clad Abu-Salha joined her husband in the apartment next to Hicks. Reading between the lines reveals that there was clearly anti-Muslim sentiment fueling Hick’s actions.
The international community, Muslim rights activists, and Twitter users armed with the hashtag “#muslimlivesmatter,” responded to the murders with demands that police investigate Hick’s motive further. Many argued that the shootings needed to be classified as a hate crime. Hate crime laws in the United States are designed as an avenue through which victims targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristic are entitled to impose harsher legal penalties on the perpetrators of crimes against them, such as lengthening prison sentences. The laws serve a practical purpose and as a symbolic statement against persecution. President Obama’s statement in response to the murders speaks to the obvious moral goals of these laws: “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” But though authorities and media tacitly imply Hick’s religious motivation to kill, Hicks has only been indicted on three charges of first-degree murder, with no additional legal penalties for, nor even any mention of, hate crimes.
Though UNC Chapel Hill is an open community in which the Muslim population has never been at odds with non-Muslim residents, there were a tense three days when the FBI refrained from intervening, and it seemed that local police would have to handle the homicides alone, without conducting any type of investigation into the hate-based nature of the crime. Now, police are taking the implications of hate crimes seriously; an FBI investigation is currently underway. Those investigating the murders and the North Carolina community seem to truly want honest answers as to why these three innocent students were killed, and do not seem unwilling to entertain a religiously-motivated hate crime explanation. But even if this tragedy is handled through the best, most fair legal avenues, it is extremely unlikely that Hicks will be convicted of a hate crime, which demonstrates a greater problem that minority groups face when seeking legal justice: hate crimes are nearly impossible to prove.
The first impediment that a conviction faces is buried in state and federal regulation. Under North Carolina state law, additional hate crime sentences cannot even enhance a felony charge. Even if Hicks were to be found guilty under the Federal Hate Crime Statute, his conviction would be merely symbolic. He already faces capitol punishment, so a hate crime conviction would provide meaning for relatives and some measure of justice for those who identify with the victims, but not change his sentence.
The next hurdle to jump in convicting Hicks of a hate crime is the lack of concrete proof. He most likely never did anything damning—like writing epithets or joining explicit hate groups—to provide proof of his motives. These obstacles are only a few of many that render hate crime laws unused by victims. Often, not even finding concrete proof is enough. The FBI keeps a record of hate crimes committed in the U.S. yearly, but it publishes numbers of crimes reported, not criminals indicted. These numbers are extremely misleading; they imply that thousands of criminals are apprehended for hate crimes per year, when in fact the numbers of indictments are substantially lower. According to a ten-year study conducted by Texas law enforcement agencies, out of an average of around 200 hate crimes reported per year, less than one resulted in an indictment.
A crime can be motivated by bias without resulting in a hate crime conviction for many reasons: complex motives make prosecution difficult, and, for felony-level crimes, would only extend what is already a life sentence. It is for these reasons that doling out harsher punishments on the basis of hate-based victim selection is rare. Although increasing Hick’s penalties because of hate-crime status would explicitly support the families’ claims of persecution, the symbolic victory might not be worth the bureaucratic hassle and legal costs.
This tragedy brings to light the fact that bias-motivated crimes are not a black and white matter. Those who call for a more thorough investigation of the motive behind this shooting likely won’t find the closure they crave in a hate crime indictment. The Federal Hate Crime Statute does more as a symbolic protest against hate than it does as an avenue for minority groups seeking justice. And because labeling something as a hate crime is not nearly as frequent, easy, or clear, we are misled to believe that bias-based crimes don’t happen as often as they most certainly do. Those seeking their fully deserved justice for hate crimes shouldn’t limit their definitions of success to achieving symbolic legal acknowledgment, but they also shouldn’t stop fighting for it. For the sake of the thousands of possible hate crimes that go unreported or are never legally addressed, the Chapel Hill shooting needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.