Hunter Michael Lee Hawkins killed another hunter in 2008, claiming he thought the man with two legs was a deer with four legs.
Late Wednesday, a Chester County jury found Hawkins guilty of negligent use of a gun while hunting resulting in death.
Then Hawkins left the courthouse with his family, because even with a guilty verdict of what prosecutors called “reckless” use of a gun that killed a husband and father of four named Tuona Xiong, Hawkins was sentenced by visiting judge Ernest Kinard to the minimum sentence of 90 days in jail to be served on weekends.
The weekends were allowed so Hawkins, who had no prior record and has worked in the same textile job for 27 years while volunteering at church, would not lose his job.
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The widow of Tuona Xiong – pronounced “Tuna Song” – was satisfied with the guilty verdict.
However, Payne Vang, the widow, said she wanted Hawkins to serve the three-year maximum allowed under the law for the hunting gun crime.
“I am disappointed,” Vang said after the trial at the Chester County Courthouse, “because I was expecting he might serve the three years for the man that we lost.
“He gets to go home to his family. My husband does not go home.”
Because her husband is dead.
Yet Vang, a naturalized American, accepted the verdict and sentence and thanked the police and prosecutors. The whole family thanked those in law enforcement. Each one shook hands with each prosecutor, the police.
Tuona Xiong, like Hawkins, was hunting in western Chester County at the Sumter National Forest that day in 2008 just before dusk.
“It was just supposed to be a simple hunting trip,” said Vang, the widow. “This happened right when it was getting dark.
“It was time to come home, and there was no reason for anybody to be shooting at that time.”
Testimony showed Xiong and his hunting friend were packing to leave when Xiong was shot by Hawkins.
Hawkins did call 911 and administer CPR, unsuccessfully.
Hawkins claimed again after the verdict that the shooting was an accident, apologizing in court.
“I didn’t go out there that day to take a life,” Hawkins said toward Xiong’s family.
“A hundred percent, to this day, I was shooting at a deer.”
Hawkins declined to comment further as he was leaving the courthouse, but it is clear Hawkins did not shoot a deer that evening.
He shot a husband and father of four children, a man who was a Hmong refugee from Southeast Asia who worked six nights a week in a warehouse.
The judge, Kinard, said these type of cases of “unintended circumstances” are the toughest in sentencing because there was no allegation by anybody that Hawkins meant to kill anyone that day.
But he did.
Kinard had used levity in several plea hearings in other cases Wednesday that involved minor drugs and simple fights, but there was no mirth in the shooting that left a man dead.
“Clearly, Mr. Xiong was a great man, and nothing is going to bring him back,” said the somber Kinard.
“And aside from this, everything points to Mr. Hawkins as a good man.”
Sixth Circuit prosecutor Doug Barfield said afterward that the guilty verdict was a victory for justice.
But after calling the rifle used to kill Xiong in court “a killing instrument” that was used recklessly and clearly not shot at any deer, Barfield declined to comment on the sentence that could have been up to three years.
During the trial, Barfield repeatedly rebuked Hawkins’ claim that the shooting was an accident.
“This wasn’t any accident,” Barfield told jurors during his closing arguments about the shooting from about 40 yards away with a scope-assisted rifle. “You can dad-gum figure out this is not any deer.”
Yet a sister of Xiong, Chao Xiong, said the guilty verdict was right but has no anger over the sentence.
“That man did what he did to my brother, he was negligent, but he has to pay bills for his family,” she said of the sentence.
“Getting even with a longer sentence won’t bring my brother back.”
The trial packed the courthouse for three days, with Hawkins’ friends and family from Spartanburg on one side and Xiong’s family and friends on the other side. There was little or no conversation between the two sides – until it was all over and everyone was leaving after the verdict and sentencing.
Then, outside the courthouse, Chao Xiong approached Hawkins himself, and others with him, and talked about how she was a Christian like they were. She said how all had lost something. She shook hands with Hawkins. And then she and two other sisters walked away with the grace and love of America that is the insignia of the immigrant seeking a better life and the incredible work and faith that takes.
But not before one of Hawkins’ family members walked up to her and the two ladies embraced.
Michael Lee Hawkins, who runs a ministry for the homeless, then was able to go home to Spartanburg and prepare to serve enough consecutive weekends to cover 90 days in county jail.
But Payne Vang, the widow who said she and her family had a “wonderful life” in Rock Hill before the shooting, left to head back to California where she moved after her husband was killed.
That is where she has to tell four children – the youngest was born after Tuona Xiong was shot and killed – that the Xiongs won the case. There was a guilty verdict about the reckless use of a gun.
She will then tell her kids the shooter received a sentence of 90 days, after their father’s sentence was bleeding to death in the cold woods.