Documentary screening recounts 2015 Chapel Hill shooting of Muslim students, presents evidence for hate crime charges

A new documentary recounting the aftermath of the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting which left three Muslim college students dead was screened last Monday at Carolina Theater.

The airing of “36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime,” which detailed the effect the shooting had on the local and national Muslim community and the ensuing fight for its classification as a hate crime, was followed by a panel of legal experts and politicians that discussed the shooter’s prosecution. 

This was the first feature documentary of Arab American veteran filmmaker Tarek Albaba, who had been working on the project for eight years. Albaba opened the screening by commenting on his experience making the film, including the close bonds he formed with the families of the victims and how Islamophobia is still prevalent nearly a decade later.

The three victims of the 2015 shooting were Deah Shaddy Barakat, a second-year student in the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was set to enroll in UNC to study dentistry the fall after the shooting and Razan Mohommad Abu-Salha, a sophomore at the North Carolina State University College of Design.

Considering the victims' Muslim identities, the shooting sparked a contentious debate over whether the motivation was due to a parking dispute, as the authorities claimed, or whether it was a hate crime.

The film

While the crime itself was a focus of the documentary, the story put far greater emphasis on the crime’s aftermath and impact.

The film projected a brief yet poignant look into the victims’ lives through a combination of photos, testimony from family members and archival footage. Each victim is presented through a narrative, joined together through references to their familial ties.

Just six weeks before the tragedy, Barakat married Yusor Abu-Salha, who was planning to enter the same school Bakarat was studying at that fall. Razan Abu-Salha was visiting the couple for dinner on the night of the shooting.

For many members of the victims’ family, the last time they saw the couple was at their wedding. 

The shooter, Craig Hicks, turned himself in that same day and was indicted Feb. 16, 2015 on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling. He ultimately pleaded guilty to the murders in 2019, receiving three consecutive life sentences. 

In his initial confession, Hicks attributed his actions to a longstanding parking dispute.

After highlighting the victims’ stories, the documentary illustrated how the tragedy harmed the local and national Muslim community, whose sense of safety was shattered by the incident. 

In an attempt to alleviate some of these fears, the police conducted a preliminary investigation that relied heavily on Hicks’ testimony, also attributing the incident to the parking dispute and omitting the possibility that the incident was a hate crime. 

From that point onwards, the documentary focused on whether the tragedy should be classified as a hate crime, as the families of the victims fought a difficult battle to change the narrative through a series of press appearances. 

The documentary presented evidence to make the case that the shooting was a hate crime. According to the documentary, the alleged parking disputes on the night of the crime were implausible, as photos taken soon after the crime contradicted Hicks’ account. 

Additionally, a series of incidents were presented to illustrate the difference between how Hicks treated his white and non-white neighbors. These accounts suggested that while he confronted the majority of his neighbors over various real and perceived slights, he only carried weapons while confronting non-white neighbors. We also learn that Hicks’ tensions with the victims — specifically Barakat — didn’t begin until Yusor Abu-Salha, a hijabi, moved in. 

Notably, this evidence is presented later in the film, after testimonials from the victims’ families arguing that the incident was a hate crime. This delivery acts as a mirror, as the audience members form opinions on what happened based entirely on testimony before getting concrete evidence, forcing them to reflect on their own biases.

The documentary concluded with Hicks pleading guilty. The Durham District Attorney’s Office chose to present evidence that the incident was a hate crime despite it not having any impact on the verdict, ensuring it would be an official part of the legal record. The film highlighted that the federal government ultimately declined to bring hate crime charges, ending with a reminder that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States.

The panel

After the screening, the audience heard from a panel consisting of Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, Durham County Commission Nida Allam and Joseph Kennedy, Martha Brandis Term professor of law at UNC. The panel, which was moderated by WUNC radio journalist Leoneda Inge, provided different perspectives on the shooting and its continued relevance by looking at local and state policy as well as modern legal issues.

Allam, the first Muslim woman to hold public office in North Carolina and a close friend of Yusor Abu-Salha, talked about how the incident touched her personally, focusing on how she and Yusor Abu-Salha once planned their lives together. She also situated the murders in the post-9/11 era, mentioning how they made her realize that “even if we stayed sheltered, this hate was still going to find its way to us.” 

Responding to a question about successful hate crime prosecutions and why there were so few examples at both the state and federal levels, Kennedy emphasized that hate crimes require proof of intent in addition to proof of action, making them significantly more difficult to prosecute. He also highlighted that some states define hate crimes as entirely motivated by hate, reiterating that hate crimes are often not prosecuted due to the implication of there being no other charges.

Deberry, who served as district attorney late in the case, opened by reflecting on her experience as a Black person in the South. She also talked about her time studying the case once she took over and what made her come to realize that what happened was a hate crime. 

“The evidence was so explosive,” she said.

Of particular focus was her decision not to pursue the death penalty, a choice motivated by the wishes of the community and the fact that death penalty charges find themselves continually relitigated, as well as her hope that the historical record would reflect the truth of what happened.

Chaudhuri described the state-level hate crime law he had written, which was first introduced in 2018 on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. The bill, which has not been passed, would expand the definition of a hate crime to include gender identity and sexual orientation and to include crimes for which hate was a partial motivation instead of the primary motivation. 

“Not surprisingly, it has not been passed,” Chaudhuri said. “I’ve introduced the bill four times in the last eight years.”

Responding to a question about how the case compared to the successful hate crime prosecution of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, Deberry connected both cases to white vigilantism and other extrajudicial actions by white men which often leads to hate crimes.

“He feels empowered to take whatever type of action the police can take,” Deberry noted.

One audience member asked about mental illness and its potential effects on what happened, leading Kennedy to reflect again on the difficulty of proving intent and sorting out different motivations when doing preliminary investigations. 

The event concluded with remarks by Albaba, who talked about the difficulty in transforming his roughly 100 hours of raw footage into a 100-minute film, as well as some of the most moving parts of the experience and things he found himself unable to include. This included the fact that the clean-up of the crime scene was done not by the state but by someone close to the victims, whose recounting of that experience was too raw to include.

Zev van Zanten | Campus Arts Editor

Zev van Zanten is a Trinity sophomore and campus arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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