BATON ROUGE, LA., MAY 23 -- The supermarket butcher who mistakenly shot a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student -- and whose trial reinforced Japanese images of America as a savage and paranoid place -- was found not guilty today of manslaughter.
"I'm very sorry," said Rodney Peairs, 32, visibly shaken and crying in the courtroom moments after the 12-member jury announced its unanimous verdict. Peairs's manslaughter trial had riveted the attention of people in Japan and raised anew questions here about the prevalence of guns and their use in defending home and property.
Peairs shot Yoshihiro Hattori with a .44-caliber magnum after Hattori mistakenly arrived at Peairs's house looking for a Halloween party on Oct. 17 last year. Peairs testified that Hattori appeared to him as a grinning, potentially crazed intruder who was brandishing a weapon and refused to stop when Peairs yelled "Freeze!"
In reality, Hattori was dressed as John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" and was brandishing nothing more menacing than a camera. It is unclear whether Hattori understood Peairs's command to freeze.
The verdict immediately became top news on morning radio and television in Japan, Washington Post foreign correspondent T.R. Reid reported from Tokyo. Once again, the shooting known there as the "Freeze Case" served to confirm the harshest stereotypes that the Japanese hold about the often frightening country across the Pacific.
Appearing on a TV Tokyo newscast, Prof. Sodei Rinjiro of Hosei University said the acquittal was to be expected because "the whole American society is obsessed with guns."
Japanese reporters were particularly surprised that the man who shot and killed an unarmed boy was described by neighbors and character witnesses as a respectable citizen. All the reports noted with surprise that courtroom spectators broke into applause when the verdict was announced.
On its surface, the case seemed mundane if tragic. A homeowner with a gun mistakenly kills a man he believes to be an intruder.
But the simplicity did not make it easy for Yoshito Okubo and dozens of other Japanese correspondents to explain the incident to people in their country.
"The Japanese do not understand such things," Okubo said as he paused at the courthouse here before phoning his news desk at Jiji Press.
"We Japanese don't understand the gun society of America," Okubo said. "And we don't understand why this man had so much fear that he would shoot a boy."
The case was billed as a collision of cultures, and among the Japanese at least, the United States and its fondness for guns was on trial along with Peairs.
The slain student's father, Masaichi Hattori, an engineer, attended the trial and sat impassively, listening as an interpreter translated descriptions of his son as "out of control . . . a hyperactive Japanese exchange student who thought his job was to scare people."
After hearing the verdict, Hattori said today he was saddened but hoped Americans would respond to his petition drive to limit the availability of guns in the United States. Hattori and others have collected 1.2 million signatures in Japan.
Peairs's defense attorney, Lewis Unglesby, portrayed the young Hattori as a highly excitable youth who, grinning and skipping, bounded into Peairs's carport that fateful night and failed to stop even after Peairs raised his magnum and shouted, "Freeze!"
Hattori and a friend mistakenly appeared at Peairs's door looking for a Halloween party that was occurring six houses away. Peairs's wife, Bonnie, testified that she was frightened by Hattori's appearance and his statement: "We're here for the party." Bonnie Peairs, who answered the door wearing a housecoat and with a small child by her side, testified that she screamed, slammed the door and yelled to her husband to get his gun.
Peairs's attorney called the shooting "a one-in-a-million deal where everything went wrong at the same time." Peairs told police after the shooting that he had made a terrible mistake.
But his attorney defended his client's right to protect his family and home against what he mistakenly thought was a threat. The defense stressed that Hattori kept grinning and coming toward Peairs, "with absolutely no regard for his home, his gun, his fear, his woman."
Doug Moreau, the district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish, told jurors that Peairs's character was not on trial -- for many described him as a good worker, husband and father -- but that his behavior was wrong.
The jury apparently disagreed, and returned its not guilty verdict in less than three hours.
Shinsuke Tanaka, a correspondent for Tokyo Broadcasting System, said one reason the case was so hard for Japanese to understand was because they do not have the same kind of fear -- and weapons -- as Americans.
Tanaka, who covered the government raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., said, "In America, when the police pull you over, you keep your hands on the wheel" so they won't shoot you. In Japan, Tanaka said, "even a policeman firing his gun at a criminal is top news -- even if he doesn't hit him."