A jury on Friday found a white former sawmill worker guilty in the shooting and stabbing death of a Hmong immigrant with whom he crossed paths while both were hunting squirrels in the northern Wisconsin woods earlier this year.
The jury found James Nichols guilty of second-degree intentional homicide in the death of Cha Vang, a case that had rekindled racial tensions in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.
Nichols appeared to fight back tears as he left the courtroom with his arms folded against his chest. Pang Vue, the victim's widow, collapsed outside the courtroom after the verdict and was carried away moaning by a sheriff's deputy. A family member said later that she had fainted and was taken to a hospital, but she was expected to be fine.
"We are pleased with the verdict," said assistant attorney general Roy Korte who prosecuted the case. "I am sure it was a tough decision and we respect the verdict."
Yee Vang, the older brother of Cha Vang, said through an interpreter that he was angry and confused about why Nichols won't get the maximum penalty for killing his brother.
"In my native country, if you are guilty you are guilty. There is no first or second degree," he said.
Nichols, 29, of Peshtigo, had been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, but the judge gave jurors an alternative of the lesser charge that carries a maximum 60-year prison term instead of life. Judge David Miron said a sentencing date would be set next week.
Nichols also was convicted on charges of hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
"Mr. Nichols took the verdict very hard," defense lawyer Kent Hoffmann said. "We believe this was a case of self-defense."
Nichols told investigators he and Vang got into a dispute while hunting separately Jan. 5 in the Peshtigo Wildlife Area. He acknowledged shooting and stabbing Vang, but said he was protecting himself.
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."
A former boss testified that Nichols once said he hated Hmong and wished he killed a Hmong man he had encountered on a trip.
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."
"The only person who had the right to exercise self-defense is dead, killed by the defendant," Korte said.
Nichols told investigators he shot and stabbed Vang after the Hmong hunter shot him twice in the hands. 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."
During deliberations, jurors were allowed to hear again a 36-minute recording in which Nichols changed his story about how he was shot and referred to Hmong as "bad."
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.