The Hunter Slayings: Self-Defense Against Racism?

Sept. 15, 2005 — -- A Hmong immigrant on trial for killing six deer hunters last year claims he acted in self-defense, despite the fact that four of the victims had been shot in the back. The defendant, Chai Vang, has also told a newspaper that some of victims "deserved" what happened.

Now Vang, an ethnic Hmong who came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, is counting on an all-white jury to believe that he shot eight people because he was afraid of a bias attack.

He is charged with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of attempted homicide resulting from the hunting skirmish in Hayward, Wis., on Nov. 21, 2004. He could testify as early as today.

Prosecutors say Vang shot the hunters after two of them accused him of trespassing during deer season and threatened to report him. But Vang says one of the men fired on him first and he claims he felt threatened because they had called him several racial epithets.

Most of the victims were shot in the back, however, suggesting that they were running away from Vang, a 36-year-old truck driver from St. Paul, Minn.

"It will be very difficult to sell a jury on a self-defense claim, with several of the victims being shot in the back. It strains the self-defense theory," said Ronald Carlson, a University of Georgia law school professor.

However, Carlson said it was Vang's best chance.

"That theory, combined with the defense that he had a reasonable and honest fear that the nature of the threats was directed toward his race, made it reasonable for him to conclude that he was in mortal danger. That's the best defense that could be taken, given the circumstances," he said.

Some Victims 'Deserved' It

In March, Vang contacted a reporter from the Chicago Tribune and said that he was trying to defend himself and his race when he opened fire on the hunters. In a phone interview and subsequent letters to reporter Colleen Mastony, Vang said he felt remorse for shooting some of the hunters but felt that some of the victims "deserved" what happened because they had threatened him and used racial slurs.

"I feel that this incident is happen, because people are not able to treated others with respect like they want to be treated and hatred toward other people or race," Vang wrote in broken English in a passage in one letter.

"I'm proud of who I'm, my race and all the people who live in this country," Vang also wrote. "Some of us Hmong people got lost into other property. It is not because we didn't respect their land."

Vang's account of the deadly incident contradicts the testimony of surviving victims Lauren Hesebeck and Terry Willers, who said no one in their group fired first or yelled profanities or racial slurs at him.

Determined to Tell His Side

Vang's statements to the Tribune were ruled admissible at his trial and the prosecution presented them to jurors on Wednesday. Defense attorneys argued that admitting the statements would violate his Sixth Amendment right to counsel during interrogation, but the judge found that there was no evidence that showed the Tribune had acted on behalf of prosecutors.

Some legal analysts believe that the admission of the statements may force Vang to testify and it could work to his advantage by allowing him to tell his story in his own words.

"There is indication Vang will testify," Carlson said. "His lawyer said in opening statements that 'Mr. Vang will tell you ...' It may be a forced, very-needed step. The defense's decision [to have Vang testify] may be a very client-driven one. Judging by his past actions, Mr. Vang is someone who is determined to have his story, his side heard. Past history suggests that he wants his story out there."

Although Hesebeck testified that no one pointed a gun at or fired at Vang, he told his wife hours after the shooting that Willers did fire at Vang, according to statements entered into court by the defense. Willers himself has testified that he did not shoot at Vang.

Hesebeck also conceded that during the confrontation, Robert Crotteau, one of the slain hunters, called Vang a "mud duck," which he testified referred to a hunter from Minnesota. But in a prior statement to investigators, Hesebeck said "mud duck" referred to a Hmong. Crotteau had previous confrontations with trespassing Hmong hunters that season.

A More Open-Minded Jury?

To ensure a fair trial, jurors were picked from Dane County, near Madison, Wis., which is about 228 miles from Hayward. However, the makeup of the jury concerns some members of the Hmong community.

"Let's face it, race plays a role in almost everything, so we're a little concerned about that," said Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, executive director of the Hmong American Friendship Association Inc. in Milwaukee. "But we really don't know what really happened and we're anxious to see what comes out, how things pan out."

Some experts believe the Madison jurors may be more open-minded than jurors from close-knit Sawyer County.

"Juries surprise courts and the public all the time. It is possible that college students and professors and their spouses may be more open to the defense of a poor immigrant and more likely to consider a reduced charge of manslaughter, not murder," Carlson said. "It is possible that the appeal to cultural factors [in a murder defense] may be more effective with a jury of faculty members than a panel of deer hunters. And this jury would not have to deal with any peer pressure. They would not have to interface with the victims or family members of the victims on a day-to-day basis after the verdict."

Support for Hmong Community

Some members of the local Hmong community feared that the public would be angry with them. But that hasn't been the case, some community leaders say.

"We had initial concern because, in a case like this, sometimes people think one person represents an entire people," Kiatoukaysy said. "But in a segregated city like Milwaukee, we got such an outpouring of love and understanding from all groups, other minority groups and from members of the community where the shooting took place. We really appreciated the support we received."

Jurors have been told they are likely to get the case on Friday.