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Trial observers question court and media 'biases' in Vang trial

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Chai Vang was found guilty of killing six hunters in the woods of northwest Wisconsin last November, as well as the attempted murder of two others. (MPR file photo)
The role of race in Chai Soua Vang's trial dominates the observations of a Twin Cities-based community group. Vang is a Hmong man from St. Paul who killed six hunters in the Wisconsin woods last fall. The Coalition for Community Relations tracked Vang's trial and has released its observations. The group says Vang's racial background received scant attention during his proceedings and unduly close attention in media accounts.

St. Paul, Minn. — Chai Vang's confrontation in the woods with several Wisconsin hunters began when they ordered him off the deer stand he was using on their private land. The hunters' particular word choice in issuing that command matters a great deal to Tou Ger Xiong. He's part of the Twin Cities community group that observed Vang's trial.

"When they saw Mr. Vang, they didn't yell, 'Get out of here, you Minnesota Viking fan.' They said 'Get out of here you chink, you gook, you f-ing Asian,'" Xiong said.

Xiong says those words signalled clearly to him that race was at the heart of Chai Vang's trial. So he was surprised by how controversial that notion seemed during the proceedings.

"When the lawyer in the defense said this case has a lot to do with racial prejudice, I can feel the intensity in the room. I felt a sense like, 'Wow! No way, don't say that bad word. No, that can't be us.' It is a racial trial. Race has everything to do with it. It's like this huge elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about," Xiong said.

Xiong and the nearly 30 volunteers who watched Vang's trial want the public to have a better sense of the role race played in order to start a dialogue on the topic.

According to the prosecution in the case, there's not a lot to talk about.

When they saw Mr. Vang, they didn't yell, 'Get out of here, you Minnesota Viking fan.' They said, 'Get out of here you chink, you gook, you f-ing Asian.
- Tou Ger Xiong

"I think the race issue is overplayed in this case," Kelly Kennedy, a spokesman for the Wisconsin attorney general said. "It's really not about race or ethnicity. It was really, from our perspective, about one man, he had anger issues, who had shown a propensity in his life not to be able to deal with certain issues or events where he feels disrespected."

One of the lawyers for Vang's defense, Steven Kohn, disagrees. He insists that racial animosity fed the conflict between Vang and the hunters he killed.

Kohn says Vang's trial was not about race in another, significant way. He says he never felt the jury discriminated against Vang in the course of the trial because he is Hmong.

He says the media accounts about Vang were another story. "Probably the most glaring error the media made was focusing on this as 'Hmong hunter,'" Kohn said. "You wouldn't have seen that if Mr. Vang had been black, had been Hispanic, had he been any other race than Hmong ... You would not, for example, see a headline that said 'Black hunter killed white individuals.'"

The Twin Cities group that tracked Vang's trial shares that criticism. In their view, the media too quickly linked the words "Hmong hunter" with phrases like "shooting spree" and "massacre," impugning Vang, and his race, before his trial began.

But Jane Kirtley at the University of Minnesota Center for Media Ethics and Law says it's not clear how the media could've avoided some of those references to Vang's race, since the hunters he killed allegedly hurled racial slurs at him.

"I think the justification for using that information was as the facts of this case unfolded, it appeared that there was significance to the racial identity of all the people who were involved in this tragic event," Kirtley said.

At the end of the day, the media's role in representing Vang's race doesn't change the validity of the jury's verdict, according to University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld.

"Whatever their criticisms may be of the media, they may be perfectly valid, but none of the media's role was introduced as evidence in the trial itself," Feld noted.

The legal process continues next week when Chai Vang will be sentenced. He faces multiple life sentences.

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