A North Carolina judge has ruled a man accused of killing three Muslim students can face the death penalty.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr said prosecutors had two aggravating factors and that Craig Stephen Hicks is “death penalty qualified”.
Craig Hicks is charged with the murders of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
Prosecutors said Mr Hicks shot the three after coming to their door.
Their family has pushed for hate crime charges, saying Mr Hicks targeted them for their religious identity.
Federal investigators have opened a separate inquiry and more charges could be added against Mr Hicks, District Attorney Roger Echols said, but for now “first-degree murder is the highest crime you can be convicted of and that is our focus”.
The killing of the three students in February sparked international outrage, especially on social media where the hashtag #ChapelHillShooting was used hundreds of thousands of times.
US President Barack Obama himself denounced the killings as “brutal and outrageous murders”, adding no-one in the US should be targeted for “what they look like” or “how they worship”.
Dozens of firearms were found in the condominium Mr Hicks shared with his wife, in addition to the handgun he had when he turned himself in, prosecutors said.
He also kept pictures and notes on his computer about parking activity in the lots around his home, according to police search warrants.
Neighbours described him as an angry man who had frequent confrontations over parking or loud music, sometimes with a gun holstered at his hip.
Prosecutors said they believed Mr Hicks had gone to Barakat’s door with a concealed gun and shot him and the two women further inside after an exchange, according to the News Observer.
He then allegedly shot the two women a second time in the head and shot once more at Barakat, prosecutor Jim Dornfried said.
Barakat was a second-year graduate dental student at the University of North Carolina, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, was scheduled to begin dental studies in the next school year.
Her sister, Razan, attended North Carolina State University as a design student.