WAUSAU, Wis. – Jury selection begins Monday in the case of a squirrel hunter accused of fatally shooting a Hmong man in the woods in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, a trial where the issue of racial tension between whites and immigrants is likely to emerge during the trial.
James Nichols, 29, is accused of shooting and stabbing 30-year-old Cha Vang, whose body was found Jan. 6 in a wildlife refuge where both were hunting squirrels.
The slaying came nearly three years after six white deer hunters were killed by a Hmong hunter in an outburst of gunfire in northern Wisconsin.
Janine Geske, a former state Supreme Court justice and now a law professor at Marquette University, said the issue of race and the previous deaths are bound to show up at the trial.
"Race can almost always be an issue in a courtroom without much diversity in it," she said, referring to rural Marinette County, where the population of 44,000 is predominantly white.
"The defense may in its own way try to play off people's thoughts in the other case and say this is just another one of those where the Hmong hunter was shooting first," she said.
Nichols, who was freed from prison in 2002 after serving time for burglary, claims the killing was in self-defense. Prosecutors contend Nichols started the confrontation, at least in part because he disliked Hmong hunters.
Nichols is charged with first-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm. If convicted of murder, the mandatory punishment is life in prison.
One of Nichols' attorneys, public defender Kent Hoffmann, declined comment on whether Nichols would testify. Marinette County District Attorney Brent DeBord declined comment on the trial.
Peter Yang, executive director of the Hmong Association in Wausau, said many Hmong — an ethnic group that immigrated from Southeast Asia in large numbers after the Vietnam War — will closely follow the proceedings.
"There were a lot of questions in people's mind as to why he was killed," he said.
Vang's body was found covered with leaves and other debris in a depression in the woods after members of his hunting party reported him missing, investigators have testified. An autopsy determined Vang was hit by a shotgun blast, he was stabbed six times and he had a 3- to 4-inch wooden stick stuck into his mouth.
It is those details that have some Hmong leaders believing Vang was the victim of a revenge killing by a white hunter.
They point out that on the opening weekend of the 2004 deer hunt, Chai Soua Vang of St. Paul, Minnesota, who is not related to Cha Vang, fatally shot six white hunters after being found trespassing on land in Sawyer County. He testified the whites shouted racial epithets at him and one opened fire first.
But two wounded survivors testified Vang began walking away when he turned and opened fire. Prosecutors convinced a jury that Vang reacted in an angry outburst, feeling disrespected by the hunters, and then tried to kill everyone so there would be no witnesses.
He is serving multiple life prison sentences.
The case against Nichols is much the same — who fired first?
Nichols told investigators that he told Cha Vang that he was interfering with his hunt, there was a verbal confrontation, Nichols got shot in the hand and then Nichols shot and stabbed Vang, according to the criminal complaint.
Sheriff's deputies arrested Nichols after he went to a hospital Jan. 5 with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in his right hand and an injury to his other hand — about the same time members of Vang's hunting party reported him missing.
Nichols eventually helped authorities locate Vang's body.
Nichols also told detectives the "Hmong group are bad," and that Hmong people are mean and "kill everything and that they go for anything that moves," the complaint said. Nichols' father and fiancee have defended him as someone who was not a racist.
Cha Vang's family has said he could not have verbally provoked an attack because he spoke no English. They are refugees from Thailand who came to the U.S. about three years ago.
"They are anxious for the trial to both begin and end," said Dick Campbell, a family spokesman.
The family accepts that the killing is not being prosecuted as a hate crime, but believes there was a racial part to it, Campbell said.
"Hmong people are aware that a lot of people don't like Hmong people," he said. "There is a bias and a prejudice that is out there so this is not new to them."