Vahag Babayan, a Bethesda jeweler who shot two men to death after a holdup at his store last June, was acquitted of all charges last night after a trial that hinged on the lengths citizens may go to in defending themselves or their property.

A Montgomery County Circuit Court jury acquitted Babayan of second-degree murder of one man, manslaughter in the death of the second and reckless endangerment for firing his gun on a busy street. The two men were killed when Babayan emptied his .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol at them as they sat in a getaway car on a busy street in downtown Bethesda on the afternoon of June 16.

The courtroom erupted in applause from Babayan's relatives and supporters, and some onlookers cried when the verdict was announced at 11:05 p.m. Babayan, 28, showed no emotion. His attorney, Edward L. Genn, thanked the members of the jury as they left the room.

The jury had deliberated for about 18 hours over two days of the nine-day trial.

At a news conference after the verdict, Babayan said he was glad the "nightmare" was over.

"I never doubted that justice would work," he said. "I regret the ending results, but the whole time I did the right thing."

The prosecutor, Robert Dean, said he respected the jury's decision. "It was a case that had to be tried. Whenever the grand jury makes a recommendation {by indicting a person}, we will pursue it."

Michael Powell, a younger brother of Steven J. Powell, 37, a substance abuse counselor in the District who was one of the men slain, reacted angrily to the verdicts. "I feel cheated," he said. "I feel that in this white society, it came out as expected." Both Powell, an amputee who had lost a leg in childhood, and the other man shot to death, Donald Shelton, 33, were black.

Jury foreman Barry Cone said the matter that took the longest to decide was the manslaughter charge in the death of Shelton, who robbed Babayan's store of about $21,000 in jewelry. Cone said the jury found that Babayan "was not acting in a reckless manner" when he fired one shot in an alley and about five shots into the car, where both men were killed.

Cone said the verdicts "were surely not intended to send a message. The verdict was about a man who was robbed, pursued the robber . . . and was threatened with death."

Babayan testified Monday that he regretted the shootings, but felt his actions were justified.

"Death is something nobody is happy about. I have regrets about what happened. But I don't think I did anything wrong. I did what I had to do."

In closing arguments Wednesday, Dean said Babayan had stepped outside the bounds of the law when he fatally shot Shelton and Powell after the holdup at Babayan's Prestige Jewelers in the 7700 block of Wisconsin Avenue.

Dean said Babayan's decision to grab a gun and chase Shelton down the street was a "viligante response" from an outraged victim. Although some people might sympathize with Babayan, Dean told the jury, "the sanctity of the rule of law keeps civilization from chaos. Don't let the law of the jungle get a toehold here."

But defense attorney Genn, in a two-hour closing statement, told the jurors to place themselves in Babayan's shoes, to understand the experience of being "totally violated and humiliated" by an armed robber.

"You have to have had to face a loaded gun," said Genn, waving a .38-caliber revolver allegedly used by Shelton to rob Babayan. "We can only imagine what it is like."

Genn said Babayan was attempting to make a citizen's arrest when he sprinted out of his store in pursuit of Shelton. "He had the right to do what he did," Genn said. "Shelton had one right to surrender and nothing further would have occurred."

Prosecutor Dean said Babayan jeopardized innocent people by firing in a public area. "He was totally unmindful of the danger . . . because of his blood lust."

Genn urged the jury not to sympathize with Powell, who he said was a conspirator in the robbery rather than an innocent bystander. Babayan and a neighboring shopkeeper testifed that a man on crutches, believed to be Powell, had been in the jewelry store shortly before Shelton. Genn said the two men plotted the robbery to support a drug habit.

An assistant medical examiner testified that Shelton was shot five times, while Powell was shot twice. Autopsy results showed both men had been shot in the back.

Babayan testified Monday he shot the two men in self-defense after Shelton pulled a gun from his waistband and Powell "reached for something under the seat" of a parked car.

However, Dean told the jury Wednesday that Babayan had not told police immediately after the shooting that either man had attempted to fire at him while he was standing beside the getaway car. Witnesses testified Shelton pointed a gun at Babayan as he was retreating, but dropped the weapon without firing it.

A high school student who saw the shootings testified he heard someone shout, "Stop! Stop!" while Babayan was firing into the car. The youth said he could not identify who was shouting. Dean told the jury the shout came from the men inside the car, but Babayan testified he ran up to the car and yelled, "Stop. Give me the bag."

Prosecutor Dean said Babayan's "hunt" of the two men exceeded a citizen's arrest. "An arrest is a detainer for further action, not to kill. The right of effectuating an arrest is not the right to shoot in the back."

Babayan, who emigrated with his family from Armenia in 1981, closed his store shortly after the robbery and shootings.