A man accused of gunning down three Muslim students will face a death penalty trial after prosecutors said they had strong and incriminating evidence including blood from one of the victims on his trousers.
Senior resident superior court judge Orlando Hudson ruled that Craig Hicks was "death penalty qualified" after a brief hearing in Durham, North Carolina.
Hicks, 46, who remained handcuffed throughout the court proceedings, showed no emotion as the judge announced his decision.
He is charged with three counts of first-degree murder over the February 10 killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
Durham County assistant district attorney Jim Dornfried told the preliminary hearing that Hicks was taken into custody alomg with a .357-calibre handgun that matched the eight shell casings recovered at the victims' apartment. There was also gunshot residue on Hicks' hands.
Police have said Hicks appeared to have been motivated by a long-running dispute over parking spaces at the condominium complex near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he lived in the same building as dental student Mr Barakat and his wife.
Mr Dornfried said Hicks revealed details about the killings while being questioned by investigators.
"There were certain issues he described involving parking," Mr Dornfried told the judge. "He went and retrieved a firearm from his residence, then proceeded over to the residence of the victims.
"The door was answered by Deah Barakat. There was a brief interaction, at which time the defendant pulled out his concealed firearm."
Mr Dornfried said Hicks shot Mr Barakat multiple times, then entered the apartment and shot each of the screaming women in the head. He again shot Mr Barakat as he left the apartment, the prosecutor said.
After prosecutors asked the judge to approve the death penalty, defence lawyer Terry Alford declined to speak.
The victims' families are adamant that they were targeted because they were Muslims and have pushed for hate-crime charges. They sat in the second row of the courtroom and declined to comment after the hearing.
The FBI is conducting what it has called a "parallel preliminary inquiry" to the murder investigation to determine whether any federal laws were broken, including hate crime statutes.
To support the death penalty under North Carolina law, prosecutors must show Hicks' alleged crimes had aggravating factors - in this case that one of the murders was committed during a second murder and that there was an act of violence committed with a second act of violence.
Search warrants listed a dozen firearms recovered from the condominium unit Hicks shared with his wife, in addition to the handgun he had with him when he turned himself in after the shootings.
Hicks, who was unemployed and taking community college classes to become a paralegal, posted online that he was an atheist and a staunch advocate of the US Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Neighbours described him as an angry man who had frequent confrontations over parking or loud music, sometimes with a gun holstered at his hip. His social media posts often discussed firearms, including a photo posted of a .38-calibre revolver. He had a state permit allowing him to legally carry a concealed firearm.
Hicks is being held at a state prison in Raleigh.