After a week-long trial in northern Wisconsin, a jury returned after only five hours of deliberation to find the defendant James Nichols guilty of second degree intentional homicide in the murder of hunter Cha Vang.
Immediately after the verdict had been read, Vang’s family members expressed their confusion and frustration that Nichols had not been found guilty of first degree murder as the prosecutor had been seeking.
Cha Vang’s brother, Yee Vang, told reporters that he was upset at the verdict, “I am angry, I am disappointed, I am frustrated and no matter what the result of this trial is, my brother will never come back.”
Frustrated to the point of exhaustion, Pang Vue fainted outside the courtroom and quickly rushed to the local hospital. Touger Xiong, a community activist, read her prepared statement to the press:
“I have kept my silence because I have faith in the justice system in this new country I now call home.
“In January, my husband, Cha Vang was taken away from me and my children by the hands of Mr. Nichols,” Vue’s statement said. “In addition he was killed in a manner that I could not have imagined. I ask myself: How could something like this happen in America?
“The horrific manner in which he died will leave scars with me and my children for as long as we live,” Vue said. “I want Mr. Nichols to know he took away a caring father, a brother, a son, a dear friend and loving husband.”
Touger Xiong then went on to make his own personal statements, questioning the fairness of the verdict.
“If Nichols would have been found guilty of a first degree charge, it would have been classified as a class A felony. By being found guilty of the lesser charge of second degree, it gets dropped to a class B felony,” Xiong explains. “The verdict today sends a clear message that the Hmong are second class citizens.”
Xiong points to the overwhelming evidence against Nichols that was brought out during the trial and asks how any jury could overlook the obvious.
“What about stabbing Cha six times in the throat? What about sticking a branch down Cha’s throat? We’re talking about a convicted felon who should have never had a gun in the first place killing a family man who was just out doing something he loved.”
The trial also produced evidence of the race driven hatred that Nichols had for Hmong hunters.
John Spaulding, a former boss of Nichols’, testified that Nichols had previously talked about wanting to kill a Hmong hunter he had encountered in the woods.
“He told me he was riding around way up north — in the middle of nowhere — when he came across a Hmong all by himself,” Spaulding said. “He said he wished he would have killed him.”
When Spaulding asked Nichols why, he said Nichols’ response was that “he hated them little (expletive).”
Spaulding said Nichols did not appear to be joking.
“He had a look in his eye, just mean, hatred. He just had this serious look on his face,” Spaulding said.
Landowner Reid Rathjen testified he once met Nichols on the road near his land adjacent to the Peshtigo wildlife area. Rathjen said he was stopped by Nichols in October and asked “if I had any problems with Hmongs on my property.”
Rathjen said Nichols told him his tree stand had been stolen from the nearby public hunting ground, and Nichols believed someone Hmong stole it.
“He was adamant the Hmong stole his tree stand and asked if I had any problems with that,” Rathjen testified. “I would say he was upset. He was not irate.”
Rathjen said he didn’t think twice about his encounter with Nichols “until this all broke,” he said.
Although Nichols did not take the stand, the jury did hear a taped conversation between Nichols and police investigators after Nichols had confessed to killing Vang in self-defense.
After describing his rendition of the confrontation between himself and Cha Vang, Nichols revealed to police that he didn’t like Hmong people.
“The Hmong group, they’re, they’re bad,” Nichols said. “I mean, I was just … I was actually kinda being nice. No vulgarities. And just, hey, you know, go hunt somewhere else. All of a sudden the (expletive) shot me.”
With Nichols’ racism playing a big role in the prosecution’s case, many believe the case should have carried a “hate crime” enhancer.
Attorney Amoun Sayaovong from Milwaukee has been monitoring this case from the very beginning. He believes that the trial should have been moved to another part of the state.
“Here we have an all-white jury from the same town as the defendant,” Sayaovong points out. “It’s obvious from the onset that you wouldn’t be able to find a fair jury from the pool of candidates available to them.”
Aside from the racism and the brutality of the murder, the most important factor that should have played into a first degree murder conviction in Sayaovong’s mind is the fact that Nichols is a convicted felon—having been imprisoned for burglary.
“In almost every situation where a convicted felon is illegally in possession of a firearm and a crime is committed with that firearm, a jury will take that into heavy consideration. To come up with a second degree conviction, this jury obviously gave Nichols a lot of credit.”
The Green Bay Press-Gazette interviewed a number of jurors after the trial and discovered that during the jury deliberations there was heated debate between the jurors on whether or not to charge Nichols with the first degree murder charge.
According to juror Brian Paulin, nine of the jurors sided with the first degree charge while the other three felt Nichols acted to defend himself.
“It became very heated between the nine and the three,” he said. “One juror in particular got very animated, began yelling at other jurors, and of course then the other jurors chimed in, until the foreman calmed everybody down.”
Realizing the group would not be able to all agree on the first degree conviction, discussion then focused on the lesser charge.
Though they were trying to get a first degree conviction, prosecutors say they view this conviction a success.
“The jury was faced with a difficult set of facts,” said Roy Korte, one of two assistant state attorneys general who prosecuted the case in Marinette County court. “Obviously we have a victim, we have no witnesses and all we have is the defendant’s story.
“There was a lot of evidence introduced regarding the circumstances around the homicide and his background, and we are certainly satisfied with the jury’s verdict.”
While they can’t do anything more on the trial, community activists say they will make sure justice is served during the sentencing, which is scheduled for November 28.
Touger Xiong believes that community action will make a difference. “Write to the judge. Call the courthouse. Show up on November 28 at the courthouse to make sure the judge understands how important this case is to the community.”
Nichols faces a possible 60 years in prison for the second degree homicide charge and an additional 20 years for concealing a corpse and for being a felon in possession of a firearm.