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Self-defense a tough sell in Vang case, law experts say
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A flag flies at half-staff in front of the Sawyer County courthouse and elsewhere throughout town November 23, 2004 in Hayward, Wisconsin. Chai Vang, 36, of St. Paul, Minnesota awaits arraignment in this courthouse after being arrested for opening fire and killing six hunters near this small town on Sunday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The St. Paul man accused of killing six Wisconsin hunters and wounding two others on Sunday has agreed to be represented by public defenders. But legal experts say Chai Vang's attorneys will have a tough case.

St. Paul, Minn. — The surviving hunters and Chai Vang tell a very different story of what led to the shooting.

The Wisconsin hunters say they told Vang to get off their property. They say Vang started to walk away, but suddenly turned around, took the scope off his rifle, and started firing.

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Image Deer camp

Chai Vang says things didn't happen that way. Vang says the hunters surrounded him, swearing at him and shouting racial epithets. Vang says he started to walk away, then turned and saw one of the Wisconsin hunters aiming his rifle at him. Vang says the hunter shot first.

In his statement to investigators, Vang admits he shot unarmed men, and that he chased after at least one of them and shot him in the back.

Those actions will make it tough for Vang to argue he was defending himself, according to Barry Feld, who teaches law at the University of Minnesota.

"You're dealing with six people, at least some unarmed, several not near the hunting stand, it makes it look a lot more like he was pursuing them or stalking them," according to Feld.

Those actions could weaken a defense case. Barry Feld says defense attorneys can be successful arguing that an attack was provoked.

You don't have a right to kill because you're being insulted.
- Joe Daly, Hamline Law School

"If they can establish the presence of provocation, it's considered a mitigating factor that could reduce murder to manslaughter," he says.

Feld says in this case, it would be hard to argue because Vang chased his victims.

Some say a better strategy for this case would be the insanity defense. Joe Daly, who teaches at Hamline University Law School, says if Vang felt threatened and abused, he could argue he didn't know what he was doing.

"And you'd incorporate in that insanity defense his cultural background, his experience in the military, the pressure he was being put under, history of racial comments in that area. You'd probably have to look at what going on in his head at that moment," Daly says.

But Daly says you don't have a right to kill because you're being insulted.

Sometimes evidence makes a case in court. But both men say it might not work that way this time. It could be impossible to tell from evidence at the scene who shot first. So a jury may have to decide which side is telling the truth.

Barry Feld, from the University of Minnesota, says juries decide on credibility all the time.

"The instruction is taking account of all facts, who's telling more plausible story; looking at them, do they seem sincere? There's a standard credibility instruction the juries are given," he says.

Friends and relatives of the shooting victims have already had informal vigils. The wakes and funerals will start in a few days. For some, those observances are the first steps toward healing.

Joe Daly says Chai Vang's trial may be another chance for the community to work toward acceptance. He says the American system of justice gives people the opportunity to satisfy the need for retribution.

"There are six people dead, and there's an entire community that's been dramatically affected, but we don't want hunters going on rampage shooting at people from different ethnic backgrounds. Part of the trial system will be to focus the need of people to have their retribution by saying, 'yes you can have it,' but it has to be in court," Daly says.

The trial itself is undoubtedly a long way off. The Wisconsin attorney general's office doesn't plan to file charges until Monday at the earliest.

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