The pale fluorescent lights of the historic old Chester County Courthouse gleamed off the black barrel. The darkness of that barrel stood out, even in a courtroom packed with more than 90 people there to see what happens when guns with long black barrels are fired.
What happened on this hunting trip is somebody died.
This somebody, in October 2008, was a Hmong refugee from Rock Hill who worked in a warehouse. His name was Touna Xiong. Pronounced, simply, as “Tuna Song.”
The song, clearly Tuesday in that courtroom for everybody involved, was a lament.
The father of Xiong, overcome, who like his son had somehow escaped the bullets of Southeast Asia as a refugee after the Vietnam War just to see the son die from a bullet here, sat in a courtroom pew and wept. More than 25 Hmong family and friends sat there and looked at the gun that killed Xiong.
Michael Lee Hawkins, 48, never told deputies or game wardens that he did not shoot Xiong. He did not run away. In his statement to police afterward and his lawyer’s courtroom words Tuesday, Hawkins told police he “fired at what he thought was a deer and he killed someone.”
More than 50 people supporting Hawkins were there in that courtroom, too. They heard how Hawkins called 911 for help after he realized what happened, tried CPR, and there was testimony that Hawkins admitted to police that he was the shooter that night and in a written statement the next day.
The charge for negligent use of a gun while hunting resulting in death carries 90 days up to three years in prison, if Hawkins is convicted.
No matter what happens, Xiong, 33, a naturalized American, left three children and a wife and dreams. No, four children were left: His wife was pregnant when Xiong died in the dark from a rifle that holds four bullets and was shot at him from 118 feet away, from up a hill, where Hawkins was at a hunting tent with his young son. The son was right there, too.
Three shots were fired, testimony showed. At what, supposedly, was a deer.
All those lives, affected and in the balance, because of the use of that gun. Or the alleged misuse of a gun, in three fired shots around 6:50 p.m. right before dark, using what was described as a gas-powered, semi-automatic 30 caliber rifle made to hunt deer.
That rifle, huge and long and clearly deadly is why all these people were there Tuesday.
This was not a crime of heinous violence like the guns that killed so many in Colorado on Friday by a violent criminal, but a gun that killed, certainly.
A pathologist testified about how the bullet tore through Xiong’s back, ripping the liver, leaving lead and fragments all the way to the front before cutting the spinal cord into spaghetti. Xiong bled to death right there on the ground.
The elected prosecutor for Chester County, Doug Barfield, held up that gun at least seven times, for several witnesses. The gun was talked about, looked at, held.
The gun was the sole reason anybody was there Tuesday, in a matter of gun use that left one person dead and one fighting to stay a free man.
The victim is Hmong, Asian, and the defendant is white. Nobody brought it up Tuesday in court but it was as plain as the courtroom sides of white on one side, Asian on the other. Guns know no ethnicity. Bullets maim and kill without regard for race. Grief in any language was all over the courtroom Tuesday because of the gun.
The gun has a wooden stock and a sight, a telescope, for magnification and it does one thing: Kill.
A State Law Enforcement Division fingerprint expert, a lab guy, held that rifle so gingerly and at arms length and looked like he thought the gun would bite him. He could not get away from the gun fast enough.
But a gun expert from SLED held that gun and talked about its power, its strength.
“You look through the sight onto your target and pull the trigger,” testified David Black, the SLED weapons expert who testified that in his opinion, after testing, the gun in court fired the bullets found in the case. “The firing pin hits the cartridge, detonates the gunpowder, and the expanding gases force out the bullet.”
He did not shout out the “Boom” that all know comes: The gunshot. He did not say anything about the awful blood and gore and broken families.
All this happened during a hunting outing in 2008, and the case is finally at trial. Xiong and another Hmong hunter, who testified that he was “terrified” when the shots started, were there in the rural woods. Hawkins and his son were there, according to Hawkins’ lawyer’s statements in court, hunting in a legal place at a legal time.
Three shots were fired. No deer was hit by a bullet. A man was hit by a bullet.
The jury trial is expected to conclude Wednesday. The son of Hawkins, a young kid at the time, might testify as to that terrible day and that gun. Hawkins has the right to testify, or not, about that gun.
Touna Xiong – Tuna Song – cannot testify. Because he is dead, and buried.
UPDATE FROM COURT WEDNESDAY
Both sides rested their cases Wednesday morning in court. The jury will get the case today after closing arguments.
Hawkins did not testify, nor did his son.
Hawkins' pastor John Petty testified that Hawkins is a church volunteer and runs a ministry for the homeless in Spartanburg.
But prosecutor Doug Barfield asked Petty if "good people do bad things sometimes?" Petty replied, "It can happen."
Also, Hawkins' hunting companion Richard Arthur, a former police officer, testified and said he didn't see what happened.
Barfield asked him if he would like to see a deer before he shoots, to which Arthur said "yes."
In closing arguments, Hawkins' lawyer Doug Brannon said the shooting was an accident. But Barfield described the shooting as reckless and said Hawkins never should have "cracked off three rounds without seeing a deer."
"He should have known he was shooting at people, not a deer," Barfield said.
Barfield described the rifle as "a killing instrument."
"This ain't a toy," Barfield said.