updated 10/4/2007 7:12:46 PM ET 2007-10-04T23:12:46

Prosecutors used a tape-recorded interview to show jurors that a white hunter accused of killing a Hmong immigrant initially lied about their confrontation in the woods.

The hunter, James Nichols, first claimed an unknown gunman shot him without mentioning they had fought or that he had shot back, according to the tape played in court Wednesday.

When a sheriff’s deputy asked why Nichols didn’t call police, Nichols started changing his story.

“If someone shoots you and you shoot back, do you have a right to do that?” Nichols asked.

The deputy asked if someone else had been involved and might be dead.

“I had no choice. He shot me at point-blank when I said he was messing with my squirrel hunt,” Nichols said.

Nichols, 29, is accused of shooting and stabbing Cha Vang, 30, after the two got into a dispute while hunting separately for squirrels Jan. 5 in the Peshtigo Wildlife Area.

Nichols is being tried on charges of first-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He could face life in prison. Nichols was released from prison in 2002 after serving time for burglary.

Nichols has claimed he argued with Vang in the woods, but Vang’s family has said Vang could not have provoked an attack because he did not speak enough English. Nichols said he got shot in the hand and then he shot and stabbed Vang, according to the criminal complaint.

On Thursday, a sheriff’s official who accompanied Nichols to the wildlife area to look for the missing hunter testified that Nichols twice asked him how self-defense works. Sgt. Barry Degnitz said he told Nichols he couldn’t answer that question.

Under cross-examination, Degnitz told the jury that Nichols asked how he could help more in the search. He was told he couldn’t and ordered to sit on a log, he said.

Incident inflames racial tensions
Vang’s death rekindled racial tensions in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.

Nichols brought up those shootings in the tape-recorded interview, telling the sheriff’s deputy the “Hmong group, they’re bad.”

He also discussed the shootings with county corrections officer Amber Lynwood hours after the shooting, while she helped transport him to a hospital for surgery on his hands, Lynwood testified Thursday.

Several hundred thousand Hmong fled Laos for the United States after the communists seized control in 1975. Many settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin and California.

Vang and his family left Laos in 1984 for a refugee camp in Thailand, then came to the U.S. in 2004, his brother Yee Vang said. He added that their father was a soldier in Laos who worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War.

Nichols was critical of the way the Hmong hunted, Lynwood said.

“He said they come in to an area and just wipe out everything that moves, squirrels, chickadees, just everything.”

Under cross-examination, Lynwood said Nichols made no “expressions of threat or hate toward the Hmong” when she was with him.

Hunter claims self-defense
In the tape played Wednesday, Nichols tells the deputy Vang spoke “gibberish” and didn’t get off a third shot before he rushed him.

“I didn’t want to die,” Nichols said. “He was choking me when I wrestled him. He tried to rip out my (expletive) eye, and I got the best of him wounded or not wounded. ... I didn’t have a choice.”

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Nichols after he went to a hospital 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.

An autopsy determined Vang was shot once with a shotgun and stabbed five times in the neck, Dr. Mark Witeck testified. A wound to Vang’s face suggested it occurred during a struggle, the medical examiner said, backing up Nichols’ account that he fought with Vang. A stick was recovered from Vang’s mouth, Witeck said.

The autopsy could not determine the order of Vang’s injuries, other than he was alive when they all occurred, he said.

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