CRIME

Muslim neighbors slain: Defendant faces families in court

Craig Hicks, center, charged with the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., sits with attorneys Terry Alford, left, and Steve Freedman as he makes an appearance in a Durham County courtroom on March 14, 2017. (Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP)

Craig Hicks, center, charged with the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., sits with attorneys Terry Alford, left, and Steve Freedman as he makes an appearance in a Durham County courtroom on March 14, 2017. (Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP)  (The Associated Press)

A man accused of gunning down his Muslim neighbors showed no emotion during a brief court appearance Tuesday where he faced his victims' relatives for the first time in nearly two years.

Looking thin and haggard, defendant Craig Hicks appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight since the February 2015 fatal shootings of a husband and wife who lived nearby and the wife's sister.

Hicks wore an orange jumpsuit and said nothing during the pretrial hearing in which defense attorneys and prosecutors discussed procedural issues hindering the exchange of investigative materials.

Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson agreed to issue a court order so defense attorneys could receive several pages of informal "bench notes" by FBI analysts studying the case.

Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the killings of 23-year-old Deah Barakat; his wife, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

Barakat was a student at the University of North Carolina's dental school; Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, had been accepted to study there. Razan Abu-Salha was a 19-year-old student at N.C. State who had stopped by their condominium for dinner the night all three were killed.

Several of the victims' loved ones attended the Tuesday hearing. Deah Barakat's brother, Farris, said it was the first time family members had seen Hicks in person since an April 2015 hearing at which Hudson ruled that he can face a death penalty trial.

"This is the first time where he's shown up," Farris Barakat said. Defense attorney Steve Freedman said he couldn't confirm when Hicks' last public appearance was.

Farris Barakat said that he felt Hicks appeared "smug" during previous court appearances, but more contrite this time: "This time it was just a dude."

He added that seeing Hicks in person is helping him deal with his anger over the case.

"When you see another human being, you become more merciful," he said. "You become less angry."

He declined to comment on the families' reaction to the pace of a case that's stretched for more than two years without a trial date.

Prosecutor Jim Dornfried said that the case would be discussed at a routine status conference in April, but the defendant won't be present. Such progress checks are held periodically before the judge. He declined to discuss how soon a trial date could be set but said after the hearing that both sides have been talking about it.

Hicks' motive hasn't been publicly established. The families believe the three were targeted because of their faith by a white neighbor who described himself as an atheist and expressed disdain for religion on Facebook. But police have said that he may also have been motivated by a parking dispute at the condominium complex.

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