HAYWARD, Wis. – An immigrant truck driver cannot reasonably claim he was defending himself when he opened fire on a group of hunters, killing six, the prosecutor told jurors Friday. But the defense said the confrontation was all about racial prejudice.
Chai Soua Vang (search) ambushed some of the victims and chased down one of them, Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said in her closing argument during the sixth day of Vang's trial.
In his closing, Vang's attorney, Steven Kohn (search), 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.
Jury deliberations were to begin later in the afternoon.
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.
Lautenschlager detailed how each victim was shot and the damage each bullet did to their bodies. She 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," Lautenschlager said.
Kohn said Friday the hunters' anger at Vang, a member of the Hmong (search) ethnic group of South Asia, 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.
Earlier Friday, the judge gave jurors the option of finding Vang guilty on lesser homicide charges. Vang was charged with first-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence, and attempted murder. Sawyer County Circuit Norman Yackel told jurors they could also consider second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 65 years, or attempted murder.
The judge denied a defense request to give the jury the option of finding Vang guilty of an even lesser charge, reckless homicide.
The defense was scheduled to give its closing arguments later Friday.
The judge gave jurors the legal definition of self-defense and told them that under the law, they must consider whether Vang had "opportunity to retreat with safety."
Vang, a 36-year-old truck driver from St. Paul, Minn., came to the United States more than 20 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.
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 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.
Asked about Robert Crotteau, who witnesses have said initiated the angry confrontation in the woods, Vang said, "He is the one that confront me the first time and yell at me and call me names. That is who he is."
He repeated his explanation for his actions.
"I did what I had to do to defend myself. I would do what I had to do to stay alive," he said.
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.