A jury began deciding Friday whether a white former sawmill worker murdered a Hmong immigrant in an angry racist rage or acted in self-defense after being shot first in a hunting dispute.
James Nichols is charged with killing Cha Vang in woods where the men had been separately hunting for squirrels. The case rekindled racial tensions in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.
Prosecutors have portrayed Nichols as prejudiced against Hmong and a liar. In recorded interviews played for jurors, Nichols explained wounds he suffered without saying he had killed a man, gave the wrong location for the shooting and referred to Hmong as "bad" and "mean."
Prosecutor Roy Korte said in his closing argument Friday that Nichols took advantage of the isolation in the Peshtigo Wildlife Area to act on an "ugly trait of his _ racism toward Hmong."
"The only person who had the right to exercise self-defense is dead, killed by the defendant," Korte said.
Nichols, 29, of Peshtigo, told investigators he shot and stabbed Vang after the Hmong hunter shot him twice. But several witnesses disputed elements of his story; even a firearms expert called by the defense Friday said Vang appeared to have fired only once.
Nichols told investigators that he panicked after being shot, but Korte said recordings and witness accounts showed a different emotion.
"He never expresses any fear of Hmong, just anger, just hate," he said.
The defense says Nichols acted in self-defense, and that he initially misled investigators because he feared going back to prison, where he had been released in 2002 after serving time for burglary. Nichols did not take the stand, but his attorneys called several witnesses who said he is not racist.
Defense attorney Hank Schultz accused prosecutors of "character assassination" and said in his closing argument that Nichols might be a liar and not very smart, but he wasn't a murderer. He said the evidence showed Vang shot Nichols first.
"There is a lot of circumstantial evidence. It is evidence, but it doesn't tell us what the circumstances were. It doesn't tell us what happened," Schultz told the jury. "You can't possibly conclude Jim is guilty of any homicide."
Nichols sat with rapt attention during the two and a half hours of closing arguments and jury instructions, staring at the attorneys as his chin rested in his left hand.
For the first time in the five-day trial, the courtroom was packed with about 40 people, including Nichols' father and Cha Vang's widow, mother and older brother.
Nichols could receive life in prison if convicted of first-degree intentional homicide. He also is charged with hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Circuit Judge David Miron ruled Friday that the jury could convict Nichols of second-degree intentional homicide as an alternative to first-degree intentional homicide. The lesser charge carries a 60-year maximum sentence.
Vang, 30, of Green Bay, was born in Laos, fled to a refugee camp in Thailand and then immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 2004, his older brother Yee Vang said.
Several hundred thousand Hmong fled Laos for the United States after the communists seized control in 1975. Many settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Source: AP News