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Judge allows confession in Vang trial
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Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager questioned Chai Vang during a hearing in Sawyer County. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Chai Vang's murder trial will be held in Hayward, Wisc. Vang is the Twin Cities man charged in the shooting deaths of six Wisconsin deer hunters last November, and the wounding of two others. A Sawyer County judge heard pre-trial motions Wednesday, setting the stage for the September trial.

Hayward, Wisc. — It was in Sawyer County that six hunters were shot and killed last November 21. Two more were wounded. Defense attorneys said the trial should moved be from Sawyer County because of extensive publicity by media in Wisconsin and in the Twin Cities. And they say there have been racial overtones to the community's reaction. Vang is Hmong.

Defense attorney Jonathan Smith said jurors drawn from Sawyer County might be pressured by the community to convict.

"Will you be able to enter the plea, or enter the finding of not guilty, as required by law? And I think there's concern about the community pressure to that. I have to, somehow, now go back into the community, whatever the verdict is. And the question is: is that an impermissible pressure, given the significance that these events have played within this community?" Smith said.

Sawyer County Circuit Court Judge Normal Yackel ruled that the trial would be held in Sawyer County, but he left open the question whether a jury might be brought in from another county. He expects to make a decision within two weeks.

Chai Vang took the stand to give his version of events the day after the shootings, the day investigators interviewed Vang and produced a statement that's essentially a confession. Vang spoke in understandable, if somewhat broken, English. He testified that he'd asked early that day to talk to an attorney. But none of the deputies and jailers remembered Vang doing that. Sawyer County detective Gary Gillis was asked by defense attorney Daniel Blinka whether the detective had been aware public defenders were trying to see Vang, before Gillis took Vang's statement.

"Were you aware that several members of the state public defender's office, several attorneys, had checked in the jail and asked to see Mr. Vang?" Blinka asked.

"I don't believe that I was," Gillis said.

"No one communicated that information to you?"

"I don't recall that," he said.

Vang was also unaware that public defenders were trying to see him. That afternoon Vang signed a form acknowledging that his statement would be voluntary, that he didn't want an attorney present, and that he understood his rights. Judge Yackel ruled that Vang clearly understood.

"He readily admitted that he understood what he was doing. Therefore the court would find that the statements are voluntary, and that their admission into evidence does not offend the due process," the judge said.

That was an important ruling, according to Peg Lautenschlager, the Wisconsin attorney general who's leading the prosecution.

"We feel as though it was a good thing that these statements are in, because we believe that jurors will better be able to get a full picture of what's going on during the course of a trial," she said.

Leading defense attorney Steve Kohn says he's not surprised by the court's ruling on the confession. Kohn also explained why he put Chai Vang on the stand. He says it was important that Vang explain his version of the day he made the statement, if the case should ever be reviewed.

"I think that a record has to be made when one is raising issues of the type we are. And there are reasons that record has to be made if, in fact, this matter, as my Blinka indicated, is reviewed by an appellate court. One of the questions that would have been asked had it not occurred is 'why didn't you put him on the stand?' His voice has to be heard," Kohn said.

In something of a surprise move, Kohn told the court that he would not be pursuing a defense based on diminished mental capacity. Kohn said that he, Vang, and some mental health experts were in agreement on that. Kohn would not say on what he would base a defense.

Attorneys will meet with the judge within two weeks and learn whether a jury might be brought in for the trial. The trial is scheduled to begin September 12.

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