US prosecutors seek death for man accused of killing three Muslim neighbours

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A judge in North Carolina ruled on Monday that prosecutors could seek the death penalty for a man accused of fatally shooting his three Muslim neighbours, US media reported.

Judge Orlando Hudson approved a motion by government attorneys allowing them to pursue a capital murder case against Craig Hicks, the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper reported.

Hicks, 46, is accused of killing Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his new wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

The three college students lived in the same apartment complex in the city of Chapel Hill where Hicks resided.

The newspaper wrote that Jim Dornfried, a Durham County assistant district attorney, told the court at a hearing that the state wanted to pursue the death penalty in part because of the heinous manner in which the killings took place.

Dornfried said on the afternoon of the shooting, Hicks went inside his home to retrieve a gun, then went to his neighbours' door and had an exchange with Barakat.

"He pulled out his concealed firearm," shooting Barakat several times, Dornfried said, according to the newspaper.

Hicks then sprayed the apartment with bullets, hitting the two women.

Before leaving the dwelling, Hicks shot each of the women in the head and fired again at Barakat as well, the News and Observer wrote.

Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and with discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

News reports said authorities found an arsenal of weapons in his home, including 14 rifles and handguns, including a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

Authorities have said the murders may have been triggered by a long-running parking dispute, or possibly a hate crime.

Police documents showed that Hicks kept detailed pictures and notes about parking in the apartment complex where he killed the three.

He is not known to have specifically criticised Islam, but was an ardent atheist, according to his Facebook postings and comments reportedly made by people who know him.

The murders sparked outrage in the state of North Carolina where friends and relatives of the victims said they were targeted because of their religion.

US President Barack Obama also decried the killings as "brutal and outrageous."