CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Authorities in North Carolina have yet to label the killings of three young Muslims a possible hate crime.
But 150 civil rights and faith groups want the federal government to do just that.
In a letter Friday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the groups said there is enough circumstantial evidence to “warrant a federal hate crime investigation” into the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammed, 21, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Abu-Salha.
Such a step would be important to those victims’ families, as well as many other Muslims across the United States, states the letter, which is signed by a number of Islamic and Arab organizations plus Jewish, Sikh, Asian-American and other groups.
“Federal leadership is necessary in this case in order to send the strongest message to the public that acts of violence like these have no place in civil society and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the groups write. “…As American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim now, more than ever, fear for their safety, the American people need to hear a strong message our nation’s chief law enforcement officer.”
They aren’t the only ones demanding action from Washington. The story has also gotten traction internationally, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying he has called President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry about it.
President Obama, Mr. Kerry, (Vice President) Biden, at this point have not made any declaration of respect,” Erdogan said. “This is telling … And if you stay silent when faced with an incident like this and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you.”
Friend: ‘No one should die like that’
It’s not just that these three died Tuesday in the college town of Chapel Hill, but how — in what appears to be a summary execution, with shots fired to their heads.
There’s not a lot of question about the suspect: A neighbor of the three victims, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, turned himself in to police the same night and has been charged with murder.
The bigger question is why the were killed.
Many of the victims’ friends and relatives gathered Thursday for their funerals and for candlelight vigils on college campuses such as North Carolina State University in Raleigh, which is where Barakat met his future wife, and where she and her sister went to school.
“These three people, as young as they were, were a source of inspiration, warmth and light for our community,” said one woman speaking at the vigil.
That’s how Nada Salem knew them. They weren’t just Muslims, she said of her friends, but “three good people that died.”
“No one should die like that,” Salem told CNN’s “New Day,” “especially when you’re that great.”
Victim said neighbor carried gun when complaining over noise
Mohammad Abu-Salha — the father of the two slain women — thinks their deaths were a hate crime. The problems started not when Barakat lived in the condo by himself but when Yusor Mohammad, who wears a hijab, moved in.
He said his daughter told him, referring to the neighbor, “Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look.”
Yusor Mohammad’s good friend, Amira Ata, agrees that something doesn’t add up.
“If he went and maybe killed all the neighbors, maybe then we can be like, ‘Oh, he has an issue,'” she told CNN, and she recalled one time Yusor Mohammed told her about the neighbor coming over with a gun to complain about noise.
“We were completely shocked because it’s not normal for you have to have a disagreement of some sort with your neighbor and for you to go over there with a gun,” Ata said.
“They were our friends, and we feel like they were targeted for a reason,” she said.
Suspect’s wife: Shooting has to do with parking, not religion
Police said Hicks has no prior criminal record and is cooperating with the investigation.
Rob Maitland, the lawyer for Hicks’ wife, Karen, said the shooting “highlights the importance of access to mental health care services.”
Karen Hicks, who has been in the process of divorce, said her husband had been at odds with various neighbors of various backgrounds over parking. That’s what this is about, she says, contending that what happened is not a hate crime.
She said, “I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith.”