Wisconsin Hmong seeking justice

Familly members grieve
Family members of slain Hmong hunter, Cha Vang, grieve during the first of a three-day traditional Hmong funeral service at the Legacy Funeral Home on January 20, 2007 in St. Paul.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

When news spread that police had found hunter Cha Vang's body lying in the Wisconsin wilderness, his family had little doubt why he was dead. They believe he died because he was Hmong.

Vaughn Vang, who is not related to Cha Vang, directs the Lao Human Rights Council in Green Bay. He worries that Cha Vang's death could be just the beginning for Hmong hunters.

"If the attorney general and the district attorney and the judge and everybody do not bring this to justice, I believe we're going to have more Hmong die in the woods," says Vang.

"If the attorney general and the district attorney and the judge and everybody, do not bring this to justice, I believe we're going to have more Hmong die in the woods."

Justice in his opinion, is that James Nichols faces a hate crime, as well as murder charges. Marinette County's prosecutor has charged Nichols with first-degree murder and two other counts but not hate crimes. A county spokesperson said the prosecutor's office had no information to add.

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Many states have some kind of hate crime or bias crime statute. These laws make it a crime to victimize a person because of characteristics such as his or her race or religion. States differ in the characteristics they include. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin protect race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation and nationality. But Minnesota also includes age and gender.

Proving hate crimes depends on the facts of the individual case, according to Vanderbilt University law professor Terry Maroney. Maroney says sometimes it's easy to prove a person committed a hate crime because they acknowledged they did so. For example, a crime as part of an initiation into a white supremacy group. On the other hand, she says, not all cases are that simple.

"Say in the course of a street crime, say a robbery or mugging of some sort, epithets are tossed around or used," Maroney explains. "Then the question becomes, 'Well were those evidence of the motivation that I selected this victim because I perceive him to be a member of these protected groups? Or is that just the kind of things people say during altercations but they would have selected that victim anyway?'"

The state's complaint against James Nichols, Vang's alleged killer, quotes him as saying, "Hmong group are bad" and "Hmong are mean and kill everything and that they go for anything that moves." The question is whether these statements would lead a jury to believe that Nichols' motivation for allegedly killing Vang was race. In addition, hate crimes have faced criticism. Some have argued that these laws penalize a person's thoughts, rather than his or her actions.

Jeannine Bell who's authored several articles and a book on hate crimes says these laws don't penalize thought; they penalize a person's motive for committing a crime. Bell, who's a law professor at Indiana University, says such laws don't encroach on a person's freedom of expression.

"You're free absolutely to think what you want. You're free to to say what you want even. But you're not free to use that as a reason to select a victim for a criminal action. So there's plenty of space for, for instance, racist, bigoted thought," Bell says.

Hate crime penalties typically add five years to a criminal's sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Wisconsin's hate crime statute in 1993, which allows adding 2 to 7 years to a sentence. One reason some prosecutors do not file hate crime charges in serious cases like murder is because the person could already face life in prison without parole. If the jury in Nichol's case finds him guilty of all current charges, he could face life in prison without parole plus 39 years.

But hate crime prosecutions are about more than extra prison time, they are also symbolic. They send a public message that committing a crime because of a person's particular characteristic is wrong. Vaughn Vang who heads the Lao Human Rights says charging Nichols with a hate crime would mean much to many in the Hmong community.

"When you express the concern of (a) hate crime because I hate you, I kill you, and then more likely it will help to reduce discrimination," says Vang.

Vang says people call him from other states and ask why he doesn't leave Wisconsin. He says he and other Hmong people moved from the other side of the world for peace and they just don't want to move anymore.