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A Southeast Asian immigrant charged with killing six white hunters in Wisconsin comes from an insular Minnesota community of 27,000 Laotians known as Hmongs that has often clashed with the surrounding St. Paul population. That, along with the defendant’s allegations that the hunters used racial slurs when they ordered him off their property in the Nov. 20 hunting incident, could provide possible grounds for a “cultural defense” strategy, defense lawyers say. A cultural defense-or the assertion that a person’s different cultural background influenced his or her actions-can be used as a mitigating factor to help a defendant get a plea deal or a break on his sentence. Attorney Steven Kohn, one of three private lawyers representing Hmong defendant Chai Soua Vang, said he could not rule out employing a cultural defense in the case. “At this point, anything is possible,” said Kohn of Kohn & Smith in Milwaukee. He declined further comment. “It’s worth trying it,” said attorney LuNhia Yang, a Minnesota public defender with the 2d Judicial District who is of Hmong descent, and who has helped clients get better deals through cultural-defense arguments. Last year, she helped an Asian man charged with criminal sexual conduct involving a minor avoid prison time after convincing the prosecutor that cultural factors were involved. Yang expects that “some cultural issues will come up” in the Vang case. “If his story is true-that the victims in this case had made some racial comments to him, that’s probably where the culture would come into play,” Yang said. According to Alison Dundes Renteln, a political science professor from the University of Southern California who wrote the recently published book The Cultural Defense, American courts historically have “been extremely reluctant to admit cultural evidence,” adding “and that’s because most people think ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ “ In regard to the Vang case, Renteln sees several cultural factors that could be raised, such as the alleged racial slurs and his background as a spiritual leader. Lawyers observing the Vang case note several factors in the Wisconsin murders where cultural issues may be raised. Among them are: Did reported tensions between Hmong and white hunters play a role in the shooting? Had Vang been racially harassed in the past, prompting him to react with fear and anger? Was Vang confused about American private property and hunting laws, having been accustomed to roaming freely in the woods of his native Laos? “I would want to know my client’s background, his upbringing,” Yang said. Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte, a special prosecutor for Sawyer County, Wis., assigned to the case, could not be reached for comment. Some weak spots Martin Kohler, a Wisconsin criminal defense attorney for 28 years who has tried many cultural-defense cases, noted some weak spots in the culture argument. For example, he said, being an immigrant doesn’t automatically merit a cultural defense. “You can’t use it superficially. You can’t just say, ‘He’s Hmong, therefore he would have a defense on a cultural basis,’ ” said Kohler of Kohler & Hart in Milwaukee. “ You have to convince people that this [cultural issue] is a true belief, that this is something that is so ingrained in the thought process that their actions were then uncontrollable.” Yet Kohler sees a possible cultural defense in the Vang case. “All I know is that there is certainly animosity between the locals and the Hmongs,” Kohler said. If Vang’s lawyers do raise cultural factors, Kohler advises that they do it during the questioning of potential jurors. “The first hearing about cultural defense should not be in opening statements. You better really have it covered in voir dire,” Kohler said. “You never want to shock the jury.” Kathleen Cady, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who has heard many culture-defense claims over the last decade, sees some merit to the argument. “From my perspective in the cases that I’ve dealt with, [cultural defense] has run the gamut from being appropriate to being offensive,” she said. “But the culture isn’t what matters. It’s what your makeup is that matters.” She later added, “just because something was allowed in one country doesn’t mean it’s allowed here.” Cady prosecuted a case 10 years ago where defense attorneys argued that an Iranian immigrant was driven to kill his wife after years of abusive treatment that violated Persian Jewish culture. The defense successfully swayed the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter instead of second-degree murder. Cady didn’t agree with the verdict, but doesn’t believe culture had much to do with it. “That case hinged more on the psychological defense,” Cady said, noting that: “There’s no jury instruction that says, ‘If you find something in the defendant’s culture you can go ahead and forgive him for what he did here.’ “

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