September 9, 2005

A murder trial in Madison: will the jurors understand the "culture" and "etiquette" of hunting?

The NYT reports on a murder trial in what it calls "this liberal bastion," my city of Madison, Wisconsin. Why does the NYT care about a murder trial and what is the significance of the liberal politics in the location of the courthouse? The accused is a Hmong immigrant and the killings took place in the context of hunting:
A jury was chosen in this liberal bastion on Thursday for the trial of a Hmong immigrant charged with killing six hunters, causing consternation in the North Woods, where the shootings took place.

Some residents of Rice Lake, where all the victims lived or grew up, said they were concerned that the jurors from Dane County, which encompasses Madison, might not grasp the nuances of rural life.

"They are not as rural, and their culture and their lifestyle is quite different from ours up here in the north," said Renee Gralewicz, an ethnic studies instructor at the Rice Lake campus of the University of Wisconsin. "So we might have some people who really don't understand the culture of hunting and the etiquette and the ethics and how all of that plays out on the jury."

Judge Norman L. Yackel of Sawyer County Circuit Court ruled in June that the jury for the trial of the immigrant, Chai Soua Vang, would be chosen from Dane County after the defense argued that publicity and strong emotions in the Rice Lake area jeopardized Mr. Vang's chances for a fair trial.

The concern about the composition of the jury stems in part from the racial overtones of the case. Mr. Vang, 36, a refugee from Laos who lived in St. Paul, Minn., told police that he had been sitting in a tree stand on private hunting land about 25 miles northeast of Rice Lake one Sunday last November when the hunters, who were white, swore at him and used ethnic slurs.

Mr. Vang said he shot at the hunters after someone shot at him first.

"The rest of the group scramble for something at the ATV so I shot them at the ATV and ran toward them because I thought that they will get something a gun to shoot me," Mr. Vang wrote in a letter from jail to a reporter for The Chicago Tribune. The letter has been admitted as evidence in the case. "I feel that this incident is happen because people are not able to treated others with respect like they want to be treated and hatred toward other people or race."

One survivor told the police that Mr. Vang fired first.

Hmong hunters have complained of harassment from white hunters, some of whom point to a different hunting culture as the root of the problem. Many residents in Rice Lake, which is 230 miles northwest of Madison and has a population of 8,300, dispute the claim that racial tensions have been high in the area.
Would it be fairer to have this trial in a place where jurors had pre-existing ideas about the "culture" and "etiquette of hunting"? If understanding the hunting milieu is relevant, can't the prosecutor prove it? Or is the concern that the people of Madison will not understand the victims' behavior and will be unusually sympathetic to the racism theme in the defendant's argument that he felt threatened?

33 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Classic journalist coyness on the part of the NYT: stating the bare facts of an event and not explaining the motives of the actors. Yes, what do they mean about the culture of hunting? Do they mean that if a lone hunter makes a mistake in etiquette he becomes fair game for other hunters? Do they mean that if you come upon six creeps in Farm 'n Fleet camouflage outfits you'd better let them do or say anything they please? The Times is too tactful to say.

Sebastian said...

Hmong hunters have complained of harassment from white hunters, some of whom point to a different hunting culture as the root of the problem.

Anyone have any idea what exactly is different about the two hunting cultures?

Sean said...

I suspect that the Rice Lake residents fear that a Madison jury will think that: (i) it is okay to shoot people who make racist remarks (although that isn't, actually, the proper rule), (ii) the dead were the kind of scum who go hunting, hence no great loss and (iii) the dead, being the kind of redneck scum who go hunting, probably did make racist remarks. Whether a Madison jury will in fact behave that way, I have no idea; stereotyping runs both (or all) ways in this country.

Ann Althouse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann Althouse said...

Sebastian: I'd have to check back to the older reports, but I believe it has something to do with Vang putting up a tree stand on private land and the victims' objection to that method of hunting.

Elliott said...

I think that the Rice Lake people fear that those who do not hunt will not understand how taboo it is to fire a gun at a human. All gun safety courses emphasize to even raise an unloaded gun and point it at someone is absolutely wrong. The Rice Lake jury is going to discount claims that the 6 hunters fired first much more heavily than a Madison jury. If the shot was accidentally discharged or not fired at the guy in the tree, then his claims of self-defense rest upon the reasonableness of him believing that he was in danger. The Rice Lake jury may even concede for the sake of argument that the 6 hunters fired first and still convict. The Madison jury may conclude that one shot fired is enough to justify an overwhelming response.

Goesh said...

I wonder why wearing camouflage makes one a creep, or why hunting makes one a creep?

Kirk said...

To add to what Mary perviously stated: The hunters in my family that live in central/northern Wisconsin have told me that one cultural difference that exists is that hunters in the US have a much stronger sence of personal property when it comes to land and hunting rights. According to them the hmongs do not all share such a belief and are mor ewilling to trespass on others property to hunt.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Mary: Actually, on the basis of what little I know at this point, I'd vote to convict, preferably on a charge less than first degree murder. He killed six people, and his life was probably not under direct attack at the time. Nevertheless, that's not a reason to assume that the dead men were angels. Obviously Vang was sorely provoked.

As for planting theories, here's one: Six white hunters come upon an Asian hunter who is either knowingly or unknowingly trespassing on private land. They tell him to move, etc., and he refuses. Each party thinks the other is arrogant and obnoxious. The six white hunters decide to press the issue -- after all, there are six of them and one gook. They start pushing their weight around, throwing ethnnic slurs, etc. They have "the rules" on their side -- the #1 pretext for bullying in Wisconsin and many other civilized places. Lo and behold, bullying doesn't work this time -- the gook has a short trigger finger. Another lesson forgotten from Vietnam.

They didn't deserve to be killed, and Vang should have gotten off the private land, but to turn that into an argument for white people's not being racist is ludicrous. Being black in Madison, no less northern Wi., gets you routinely stared at, and if you're shopping in a store it gets you put under surveillance, and if you're a black male high school student in Madison it gets you put in the basement classsrooms. The idea that a mixture of Scandinavians, Germans, and other white Europeans makes you diverse is laughable in the 21st century.

Goesh: I'm a human, so being a hunter doesn't make someone a creep to me, but it makes him a creep to the deer.

Goesh said...

Most humans accept their canine teeth for what they are and I don't have a problem with others doing the killing to provide meat for grocery stores and restaurants. I think only a racist would assume that caucasion hunters would automatically start calling one of Asian descent a gook upon being in disagreement with said person.

Jonathan said...

Different culture or no, if this guy really did shoot at least 6 people he will have a hard time defending all of his shootings as justified. I would think a change of trial venue to Madison makes perfect sense from his lawyer's POV. There's probably a higher chance in Madison of getting at least one juror who will either buy the cultural defense or will be prejudiced against Anglo hunters or will be naive enough about weapons and conflict to not be skeptical of the self-defense argument.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Mary, Goesh: You make good points about hunting, which is why I'm not against hunting. Don't assume things about me based on what kind of person you think I am.

Nevertheless, a deer is not going to think, "Oh, this is a beneficial culling of the herd" as it goes down.

As for race, people aren't either racist or nonracist, and racism isn't only a matter of animosity. The claim "I am not a racist" is always suspect even when it is made with good intentions. It's a claim I would never make.

Gotta go to the gym and work off some aggression before I plug some WASPS!

Goesh said...

Your point is well taken about the deer, Mr. Cohen. I confess to slaying and eating squirrels on occasion. For every one I drop, there are probably 5-6 shots not taken for fear of only wounding the the little fellow/gal(s). There are hunters who are not of this 'culture', unfortunately. On the other hand, I know one fellow who goes deer hunting every year and has never shot his rifle despite having the chance to bag a deer. He likes the ritual associated with it and the camping out and simply playing the part of it. My brother, a stout and brave fellow, upon dropping his first deer cried and sold his rifle. He has however killed and eaten hundreds of ducks. We humans are an odd bunch.

Pastor_Jeff said...

It's hard to see anything less than immediate threat to life justifying the killing of 6 people, but they man still deserves a fair trial.

There are two challenges here in finding an objective jury of peers. You need a group of people who don't have stongly held prejudices against 1) hunting, and 2) Hmong (or other Asian) immigrants. I agree with the defense that you won't find an objective jury anywhere near Rice Lake. Perhaps it should be in a moerately-sized near-rural area that understands hunting culture, with the lawyers checking prospective jurors for attitudes towards Asian immigrants.

Smilin' Jack said...

What makes hunters creepy is not that they kill animals, but that they enjoy doing it. I eat meat, and I don't have any problem with the ranchers or slaughterhouse employees who make a living killing animals to provide it. But for someone who doesn't need the food to get up before dawn and stand in a blind all day on the off chance he might be able to kill something, just for fun, does strike me as a bit weird.

I don't really see that hunting per se has much relevance in this case, though. The crux will be whether the defendant can make the jury buy his rather implausible claim of self-defense (one generally runs away from a threat, not toward it.) Nor does it matter if the victims were racists...one has as much to be a racist, and to act within the law on racist beliefs, as one has to be a Presbyterian.

tcd said...

I don't buy that Mr. Vang shot 6 people in self defense. Does anyone believe that if all 6 people were acting aggressively towards Mr. Vang that he would come out unscathed and all 6 ended up dead? He shot people in the back for God's sake; what does that say to you? To me, it says they were running away from him at which point he should have just packed up and gotten off of private land that he was trespassing. The whole incident may have started out as self-defense on Mr. Vang's part but once he shot dead 6 people, Mr. Vang was trying to get rid of witnesses.

Sean said...

Is Mr. Cohen saying above what he seems to be saying, that ethnic slurs are sufficient provocation such that killing a person who makes such remarks, and a number of his or her compansions, is not first degree murder? That is hardly the law, nor should it be.

Margie said...

No one has mentioned what I think is some of the most damaging evidence against Vang: his initial version of events. Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the Complaint filed against him read:

10. The defendant initially told your complainant that he did not
shoot any of the hunters. The defendant stated that the first hunter
he saw who had a gun took the defendant’s gun and shot the others and
then forced the defendant to walk to each of the bodies. The defendant
later changed his story. 11. In the defendant’s second version
recounting the incident, he stated that he walked about 15 to 20 yards
away from the other hunters and turned around and saw the man who had
a rifle walking toward the other hunters, take the rifle off his
shoulder and take it into his hands. The defendant stated he then
heard someone yell, “What did you say?” The defendant stated he
replied, “I didn’t say anything,” and the other person responded, “I
saw you give me the finger.” The defendant stated he again replied
that he didn’t say anything. The defendant stated he continued walking
about another ten yards when he looked back again and saw the man with
the rifle pointing the rifle at him. The defendant states that he then
dropped into a crouch position and the person shot at the defendant
but missed. The defendant then removed the scope from his rifle and
shot twice at the man with the rifle who dropped to the ground. The
defendant then saw the other men run toward the ATVs, which had gun
cases, and he thought they were going for guns. The defendant stated
he then started to shoot at the men near the ATVs and saw two or three
more men fall to the ground. Your complainant personally examined the
ATVs at the scene of the shooting and observed that none of them
contained any guns, gun cases, or gun racks.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Sean: No. What mitigates it in my view is that it was six armed people against one armed person. Which makes it highly unlikely in my opinion that the one person attacked the six without strong provocation. Unless Vang went crazy and killed six people for no reason -- which is possible but far from proven.

I want to repeat that in my view this is only mitigation and not exoneration. And of course we will never know all the facts because the witnesses are all dead.

Smilin' Jack: "...one generally runs away from a threat, not toward it." Unfortunately, the victims were counting on Vang to be that sensible. It's like expecting the oncoming traffic to slow down when one makes a risky left turn. Vang sped up.

Mary: Even if everyone in Wisconsin is that good a shot, what about all those Illini who drive up in their Land Rovers every November? Half the time it's all they can do to keep from shooting themselves by accident.

Scipio said...

RLC: Hmong are not "gooks," per se. The preferred racially insensitive term for Hmong is "mung" or the more general "slope."

"Gooks" are the Vietnamese that fought against Americans.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Richard,

Was your second post (10:58) meant to sound so racist? Why do you assume the dead people were bullies, that they saw the defendant as a gook, that they sorely provoked him and threw racial slurs around? If he was provoked, why must it have been racial? Can't white people be jerks without being racist?

Why do you assume that the defendant, as a "gook," has a "short triger finger" (whatever that means) and what does that have to do with Vietnamese? As a Laotian, is he lumped in with the Vietnamese because he's from southeast Asia and all those people must be like the VC?

And are black students really put in basements in Madison simply because they are black? How does the school get away with segregating the classes and giving better rooms to whites?

Margie said...

RLC said: What mitigates it in my view is that it was six armed people against one armed person


Again, from the criminal complaint:
Lauren Hesebeck stated that after Terry Willers called
back to the cabin, Hesebeck and Robert Crotteau, Joe Crotteau, Dennis
Drew and Mark Roidt drove two all terrain vehicles (“ATVs”) to where
Terry Willers and the defendant were located. Hesebeck and Terry
Willers stated that neither Hesebeck, Robert Crotteau, Joe Crotteau,
Dennis Drew, nor Mark Roidt brought any firearms with them

Nevermore said...

From tcd....

"I don't buy that Mr. Vang shot 6 people in self defense. Does anyone believe that if all 6 people were acting aggressively towards Mr. Vang that he would come out unscathed and all 6 ended up dead?"

Sure, I do. I'm very familiar with that area and the people that live there, and I have no problem believing that one of the hunters pointed a loaded weapon at Mr Vang as he walked away, as racial tensions are high in that region.

"He shot people in the back for God's sake; what does that say to you? To me, it says they were running away from him at which point he should have just packed up and gotten off of private land that he was trespassing."

It could equally say that they were running for weapons to use on Mr. Vang. You can't wait until they are firing on you, because then it is 5-on-1 and Mr. Vang would be dead.

"The whole incident may have started out as self-defense on Mr. Vang's part but once he shot dead 6 people, Mr. Vang was trying to get rid of witnesses."

You don't know that, and that's the crux of this case: reasonable doubt. Were I on this jury, I could probably believe either side, but not enough to convict. Classic case of Presumed Innocent.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Go back a few days to the thread on the white toursits evacuated from the Superdome. Much of the discussion had to do with perceived versus real threats.

Would you feel differently if a white person in the Superdome had killed six black people, claiming self-defense? And would there be cultural differences that would require a certain jury makeup or a culturally different location for a fair trial?

Margie said...

Nevermore said: It could equally say that they were running for weapons to use on Mr. Vang. You can't wait until they are firing on you, because then it is 5-on-1 and Mr. Vang would be dead.

But surely there's some room between waiting until you're fired upon and chasing an unarmed man running away from you and shooting him four times in the back.

Tom said...

I grew up in the north woods, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if those six dead hunters used a racial epithet against Vang. At the same time, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if they hadn't, and simply told him to get off their land. Just because one wears blaze orange doesn't make one a racist.

As for hunting culture, this reminds me of a case in Maine from about 15 years ago, when a Bangor jury acquitted a hunter of murder charges after he shot a woman who was in the backyard of her rural home putting laundry on the line. The hunter saw movement through the trees and thought she was a deer. The reason the jury acquitted her was because she wasn't wearing blaze orange and so she had to take some responsibility for her own death for not knowing local custom. She had just moved from Boston and so she didn't know that during deer season, if you go outside, you wear orange. The foreman said they would have convicted on manslaughter charges but they weren't given the choice, and since she wasn't wearing orange, they felt that murder was too harsh a judgment. When in Rome....

PatCA said...

Let's assume they were racists. So what?

If you say, "Get off my land, you gook" does that mitigate the murder? If a white guy says to another white guy, "Get off my land, you cracker" would that also mitigate the circumstances? No.

tcd said...

Nevermore said, "Were I on this jury, I could probably believe either side, but not enough to convict. Classic case of Presumed Innocent." Well you really can't convict dead people now can you? Isn't it convenient that Mr. Vang killed the other side?

michael a litscher said...

Would it be fairer to have this trial in a place where jurors had pre-existing ideas about the "culture" and "etiquette of hunting"?

How about a place where jurors had pre-existing experience with the "culture" and "etiquette of hunting".

If understanding the hunting milieu is relevant, can't the prosecutor prove it?

If I remember correctly, one version of this guy's story involves removing his scope in the middle of the firefight. Now we've all seen hollywood movies where the assassin assembles his gun from parts stashed in his suitcase, including snapping on a scope, but quick disconnect scope mounts are very rare in real life. I've been shooting guns and going to gun shows since I was a Boy Scout (I'm now in my early 40's), and I can count the number of times I've actually seen a gun with a quick disconnect scope mount on one hand, and have fingers left over. Sure, they exist, but they're very rare. They're rare because they're both expensive, and of questionable accuracy.

Thus, the vast majority of scopes are mounted in scope rings using screws, which is then mounted to the gun using nuts and bolts. Not the kind of thing you're going to remove quickly, unless you already have the tools in your hand.

If I were on the jury and got a decent look at the defendant's rifle, I'd be able to tell if it had a quick disconnect scope mount or not. And if not, well, I'd know at least part of his story is B.S..

Or is the concern that the people of Madison will not understand the victims' behavior and will be unusually sympathetic to the racism theme in the defendant's argument that he felt threatened?

You can be extremely rude to someone on the internet, because there is very little chance that the object of your rudeness can, in any physical way, teach you some manners.

You can be somewhat rude to a stranger on the street, though the chance that the object of your rudeness teaching you some manners has gone up, though the worst you're likely to experience is a broken nose.

But when everyone is armed - and I'm speaking from extensive personal experience here - people are unusually polite, and for a very good reason. Being tought some manners has the potential of taking on a whole new, lethal dimension.

Hence, if I were to see an armed African American, or Jew, or Mexican, or... sitting in a tree on my property, for example, I wouldn't resort to racial epithets, even if I too was armed. I would ask the person to leave, nicely, and if that didn't work I'd call the authorities and let them handle it.

Would your typical jury pool, from Madison, WI, appreciate that this extra polite behavior is typical among the heavily armed? Or would they view these hunters as a bunch of right-wing, violence-prone (they were trying to kill Bambie, after all), extra-chromosome, knuckle-draging racists who "Obviously...provoked" (hat tip - richard cohen) Vang into shooting them?

I really don't care how smart, intellectual, and worldly Madisonians consider themselves to be. Until they've spent some time among people carrying guns, all they can do is assume - usually wrongly - how behavior is modified under those circumstances.

ronin1516 said...

I am convinced that a jury made up of residents of Madison ( most of whom are like the folks I deal with in my town of Ann Arbor, Michigan), will be unable to be fair in t his sort of a case.
I feel that they will come in with a lot of pre-concieved ideas and notions - llike, for example, the Hmong defendant is somehow a racially-oppressed victim of some sort, who defended himself in a heroic manner, when the WHITE, MALE, GUN-OWNING, HUNTING, RURAL, HUNTERS, allegedly uttered racial slurs. Had this been a jurty in mytown, they probably would discount all the relevant evidence, and immediately free the Hmong defendant, and probably would award him the key to the City, and then organise a lecture tour, so that he could go and talk to uber-libs all over the country about how he was "oppressed" by the white hunters.

Now, as a Asian person myself, an immigrant, no less, I personally do not believe a word of what this Hmong killer has said. face it, folks, lying is considered a perfectly OK thing to do in most Asian societies - back in the old country.

brwneyegurl said...

The one thing that I want to know first of all you are coming to wisconsin in the middle of know where and you are just going to pick a tree and go hunting okay fine. but why are you hunting alone in a dominatly white area any way. I would think that you should be with other people. you should have a plan of how and where you are going to hunt I am from that area and there is none of us that would go hunting by ourselves exspecially in an area that is unfamilar. that is just telling me that this was premeditated and they are shot in the back. come on your intentsions where to cause harm. where were all their riffles. not with them. this man came into our community and has sattared the lives of many people who were directly involed and other wise. i won't go hunting any more sense you become the hunted. no thanks

peter hoh said...

Here in the Twin Cities, the media is following this case closely. Tonight (Thursday, Sept. 15) a report from the trial led the 9:00 news -- then they went on to coverage of the President's speech.

peter hoh said...

The defendant testified today (Sept. 15). By the looks of the clips they showed on TV, I think he hurt his case. He (and his legal team) are sticking with a self-defense argument. The coroners' reports (yes, there were two coroners testifying) were fairly damning.

On the stand, the defendant was rather animated, while saying things like "I started chasing so and so." I'm not sure how that came across to the jury, but I'm sure his lawyers went nuts during the cross examination. The prosecutor managed to get Vang to talk about which of the victims deserved to die. She was leading him -- "name of victim, did he deserve to die?" -- and he answered with strong affirmatives.

In such a situation, I'm sure I would have had the sense to say that no one deserved to die, that it was all an unfortunate event. What is that ability? I'll call it cultural fluency for lack of a better term. It's something about knowing what your target audience wants from you. Sort of like what John Roberts has in spades.

NOTE: I am not making excuses for the defendant. Just trying to show how I saw the prosecutor doing her job, based on just a few video clips. And why I think the jury will find him guilty.

So I'm left wondering if the prosecutor took advantage of the defendant's lack of cultural fluency. Here she was, the prosecutor, asking him questions. He must have assumed it was his job to answer all of them, as vigorously as he could. He seemed to have no idea how these answers might be viewed by the jury.

And I'll bet, because of language and cultural barriers, Vang's lawyers were unable to coach him about how to answer the prosecutor's questions, and especially, when and how to give non-answers.

Question for you lawyers: once the cross examination starts, the defendant's lawyers can't step in or call for a break, can they? I assume that they are limited to objections -- directed solely to the judge -- but perhaps a defendant aware of the system would take that as a clue to be more careful.