updated 10/2/2007 6:13:22 PM ET 2007-10-02T22:13:22

A white hunter who killed a Hmong immigrant during a dispute in the woods was motivated in part by prejudice and did not act in self-defense, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

In opening statements, Assistant Attorney General Don Latorraca told jurors that James Nichols initially lied about killing Cha Vang, 30, in January.

Defense attorney Kent Hoffmann did not dispute that Nichols killed Vang, but said he did so in self-defense. Nichols, who had served time for burglary, lied about his actions at first because he was afraid of going back to prison, Hoffmann said.

Nichols, 29, of Peshtigo, and Vang got into a dispute while hunting separately in the Peshtigo Wildlife Area. The death rekindled racial tensions in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Nichols after he went to a hospital Jan. 5 with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in his right hand and an injury to his other hand — about the same time members of Vang’s hunting party reported him missing.

Hoffmann told jurors that Vang shot Nichols twice before he fired back.

“He wasn’t going to wait around to die. He protected himself by killing the shooter,” the defense attorney said.

But Latorraca told jurors that just because someone says he acted in self-defense doesn’t mean what he did was reasonable under the circumstances.

He also questioned Nichols’ truthfulness, saying he gave false information about the incident to medical workers at the hospital.

“The record will show Mr. Nichols had a rather calm demeanor for someone who had been shot by an unknown assailant in the woods,” Latorraca said.

Nichols faces life in prison
Nichols is charged with first-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm and could face life in prison.

When prosecutors placed a life-size picture of Vang before the jury, his widow and other family members cried. An autopsy concluded Vang was hit by a shotgun blast and was stabbed six times.

A fired shell was found inside Vang’s gun, indicating it had been fired at least once that day, Mike Haas, an evidence technician at the State Crime Lab’s Wausau office, testified Tuesday. Investigators found the blood-covered gun hidden inside a fallen tree.

The all-white jury selected Monday to decide the case has been sequestered. A juror who became sick overnight was excused, leaving 13 jurors, one of whom will be declared an alternate before deliberations begin.

During jury selection, prospective jurors were asked numerous questions about race.

“If you don’t speak English, you shouldn’t be out in the woods with a gun,” one prospect said. But many who took that view also said they could look at the evidence objectively.

Vang’s family came to the U.S. from Thailand about three years ago. Several hundred thousand Hmong fled Laos for the United States after the communists seized control in 1975, many settling in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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