A jury on Friday convicted an immigrant truck driver of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of six deer hunters during a confrontation over trespassing, rejecting his claims that he fired in self-defense.
Chai Soua Vang, 36, faces mandatory life in prison. Wisconsin does not have a death penalty.
Jurors deliberated about three hours before convicting Vang on six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and three counts of attempted homicide. In addition to the six dead, two hunters were wounded in the shootings Nov. 21 that began when the group of hunters confronted Vang for being on private land.
Vang, dressed in a business suit with family members seated behind him, showed no visible emotion as the judge read the verdict. He had claimed he fired only after one hunter used racial slurs and another shot at him.
The crime rocked Wisconsin’s north woods in part because four of the victims were shot in the back and all but one were unarmed, according to testimony.
The slayings also occurred during the state’s beloved deer hunting season and exposed racial tension between the predominantly white north woods residents and immigrants from the Hmong ethnic group of Southeast Asia.
‘Why can’t there be one Hmong?’
Outside court, one of Vang’s friends questioned the all-white jury’s makeup and maintained Vang was innocent.
“All Caucasian, all American. Why can’t there be one Hmong? Why can’t there be one minority in there?” Pofwmyeh Yang said. “I believe only one person can judge, and that’s God. But God didn’t judge today.”
Defense lawyer Steven Kohn said the verdict was not a surprise. “We had no illusions. The facts were incredibly difficult from a defense standpoint,” he said.
The original jury pool of 450 people included minorities, but most asked not to serve on the jury because of a conflict or personal feelings. “They were given the same deference as the Caucasians,” Kohn said.
Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said in her closing argument that Vang ambushed some of the victims and chased down one of them. But the defense said the confrontation was all about racial prejudice.
Vang’s attorney, Steven Kohn, told jurors the prosecution cannot prove who fired the first shot. Vang had testified he started firing only after one of the hunters shot at him first.
“In the courtroom, the tie goes to the defendant,” Kohn said.
Lautenschlager reminded jurors Vang testified he felt two of the victims deserved to die because they called him names. “The physical evidence and the witness statements speak for themselves,” she said.
Kohn said Friday the hunters’ anger at Vang was driven by racial prejudice.
“It really is the straw that stirs the drink. It is the catalyst,” he said. He told jurors the trial was not about the Hmong community or Wisconsin’s hunting culture, but about what happened when specific individuals confronted each other in the woods.
Jurors could consider lesser offenses
The judge had given jurors the option of finding Vang guilty on lesser charges of second-degree murder or attempted murder.
Vang testified Thursday that he fired at the group of hunters because he feared for his life. At one point, he pretended to hold a rifle as he told jurors how he gunned down the victims — but he claimed it was only after a shot was fired at him.
Vang, a truck driver from St. Paul, Minn., came to the United States more than 20 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.
He said the shootings happened after one of the white hunters used profanities and racial slurs when angrily confronting him for trespassing in a tree stand used to hunt deer last fall.
Two survivors of the shootings testified that only one shot was fired at Vang, and that was after he had already shot the victims.
Cross-examined by Lautenschlager, Vang was asked if each victim deserved to die. Vang answered “no” in some cases and “yes” in others.
He told jurors he was on the rifle team in high school in California and later served in the National Guard, where he was trained to shoot to kill. He also described himself as an experienced hunter.