Chapel Hill shooting: When is a crime a 'hate crime?'

Willie Grace | 2/12/2015, 10:55 a.m. | Updated on 2/12/2015, 10:55 a.m.
But police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, say the Tuesday evening shooting appeared to be fueled by rage over a ...
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Derrick Donchak and Brondon Piekarsky had repeatedly kicked a Mexican man in the head while hurling racist slurs at him. The man died.

What about the 'terrorism' label?

That, too, has legal ramifications, and is not applied lightly.

The feds have a very specific definition of when something is an act of domestic terrorism.

It has to have three characteristics: an act that takes place in the U.S., that's dangerous to human life, and is intended to intimidate civilians or affect government policy by "mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."

Probably the best example is the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. To the victims at the Texas base, it was an act of terror, when Maj. Nidal Hassan opened fire on his fellow service members.

But federal authorities never used the terrorism label. It met some of the criteria, but it was a legal move. Avoiding the label made it easier for them to pursue the death penalty.

Why doesn't the 'hate crime' label apply here?

There's not much concrete evidence of bias, police in North Carolina say. They're searching Hicks' computer and so far have not come up with anything that points in that direction, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told CNN.

Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said there was no federal investigation underway, and the incident appeared to be isolated rather than part of an organized campaign against Muslims in the state.

Hicks' wife, who is in the midst of divorce proceedings, told journalists she's convinced religion had nothing to do with it. Her divorce lawyer Rob Maitland, her attorney, said the shooting "highlights the importance of access to mental health care services."

He declined to provide any details about the suspect's mental health history, but said, "obviously it's not within the range of normal behavior for someone to shoot three people over parking issues."

So, why are people calling it a 'hate crime'?

On what is believed to be his Facebook page, Hicks is quite vocal about his atheism. And those alleging it's a hate crime are passing around a post attributed to him:

"When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I." CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the post.

By itself, it's thin, said CNN legal analyst Mark O'Mara.

It's "one piece of evidence that suggests that he had a hatred or dislike for the Muslim community - potentially. If that was the only piece of evidence, I don't think it's enough, quite honestly," he said.

Contrast this case with the Kansas City shooting last year when Frazier Glenn Cross allegedly opened fire at two Kansas Jewish centers. The three people he killed were Christian.

Organizations that track hate groups described Cross, who is also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, as a long-time white supremacist. Another indication of his mindset were the words he shouted from the back of the patrol car after his arrest: "Heil Hitler."