HAYWARD -- A Hmong deer hunter on trial for murder felt physically threatened by a group of white hunters who tormented him with racial insults, his attorney told jurors Saturday. But a prosecutor said Chai Soua Vang opened fire because he was angry the group disrespected him.
Vang is accused of killing six deer hunters and wounding two others after a confrontation over trespassing exploded into gunfire. Vang's attorney, Steve Kohn, said Vang started shooting because he believed another hunter fired first.
"You will hear him telling you that he felt he was under siege," Kohn said during the opening day of the trial in Sawyer County. "He knows he was shot at by some very hostile individuals."
But prosecutors said Vang, 36, fired first because he was angry the others were disrespectful to him and said they would report him to state game wardens for trespassing, Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte said.
"In the end, it was nothing more than anger," Korte said.
Korte said Vang fired at least 20 shots, and the other hunters had only one gun and managed just one shot during the confrontation in some isolated northwestern Wisconsin woods Nov. 21. Four hunters were shot in the back, and one victim ran nearly 500 feet before he was shot, Korte said.
Korte denied the hunters used racial slurs, though he said one hunter, Robert Crotteau, got angry and used profanity. Kohn described a different confrontation in which the white hunters repeatedly used racial slurs against Vang, of St. Paul, Minn.
"There is no question that race and racial prejudice played a part in the interplay between these individuals," Kohn said.
Vang, a National Guard marksman and father of six, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. He faces mandatory life in prison if convicted. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty.
Among the 100 people who packed the courtroom were friends and relatives of Vang and of the victims. Vang, dressed in khaki shirt and pants, showed no emotion as the attorneys gave their opening statements to the all-white jury. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
Vang, a deer hunter since 1992, told investigators he got lost chasing a wounded deer and crawled into a tree stand on private land, where Terry Willers found him, the jury was told. Willers asked him to leave, and other hunters soon arrived and called Vang derogatory terms, Kohn said.
Crotteau, one of the property's co-owners, rushed to confront Vang, Kohn said.
"He starts laying into him. Foul language, racial epithets, and he is physically threatened," Kohn said. "Robert Crotteau said he was going to kick Chai Vang's a—. Every other word had an 'f' in it."
Korte said Crotteau naturally was angry to find Vang in the tree stand, and he used profanities but no racial slurs.
"No one grabbed him. No one pushed him. No one threatened to shoot him," Korte said.
Korte said witnesses will testify Vang walked a few feet down a trail and took the scope off his rifle.
Vang swung around and pointed his gun at Willers, who took his gun off his shoulder and pointed it upward, Korte said. Willers yelled at Vang to drop his gun, told him to leave and dove behind a tree, Korte said.
Vang dropped into a crouch and fired at Willers, hitting him in the neck, Korte said.
"He is stunned. He can't move. He is lying on his gun, the only gun they have," he said. "The defendant didn't stop there. He continued shooting."
Kohn told the jurors Vang will tell his story, "how he perceived a shot was fired at him, toward him." He asked the jurors to put themselves in Vang's place -- by himself and under verbal attack by a group of white hunters with at least one gun.
Birchwood Police Officer Pete Weatherhead, one of several to testify Saturday for the prosecution, said he and other investigators sent to the woods saw only one gun, lying close to one victim.
In a letter to a Chicago Tribune reporter from jail, Vang admitted he shot at a man running from him screaming for help because he thought the man would return with a gun. Vang, who came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, also wrote he acted to "defend myself and my race."