It is almost two years to the day since Karen Wood, 37-year-old mother of twin girls, was shot dead in the woods behind her home near Bangor, Maine, by a deer hunter. It is almost a month since the man who shot her was acquitted of manslaughter.

After deliberating 9 1/2 hours, a Penobscot County Superior Court jury on Oct. 17 absolved Donald Rogerson of criminal blame. Rogerson's insurance company already had paid $122,000 in damages to Wood's family to settle civil litigation.

The jury in the criminal case accepted Rogerson's defense that the shooting was accidental. The 47-year-old supermarket produce manager never disputed that he shot his rifle twice after apparently mistaking white mittens the woman wore for the "flag" (upturned white tail) of a fleeing deer.

The case garnered national attention and engaged residents into bitter public debate over the rights of hunters and nonhunters. Some suggested that Wood was partly to blame for not wearing blaze orange clothing during deer season. Rogerson told the Bangor Daily News a week after the verdict that the time might have come to require "anybody that is in legal hunting territory in Maine to wear blaze orange."

Said Rogerson, "Maybe in the month of November, is it such a great infringement upon your freedom to maybe {put away} that white coat or a tan coat?"

The answer, of course, is yes, it is too great an infringement to expect law-abiding people to dress up in orange costumes to allay fears someone will mistake them for wild game.

The verdict sparked an outpouring of response, much of it angry. The Bangor Daily News ran column after column of letters, 26 in one day alone. Most decried the jury's finding.

"I feel appalled that the hunter was acquitted," wrote Kathlyn Fisher of New Harmony, Ind. "I am disgusted," wrote Carl Philbrook of Vinalhaven, Maine. "It is horrendous that Donald Rogerson is being allowed to go scot-free," wrote Marjorie Bryant Harrington of Portland, Maine. "Are we giving hunters the right to shoot anything that moves?"

The circumstances of the incident are not unique. It could have happened anywhere. Wood was in thick forest 134 feet from her house, but out of sight of it. Rogerson approached from another direction. No one knows why Wood was there. Some speculate she may have seen the hunters and wanted to warn them they were too near.

Rogerson had lost access to the place he traditionally hunted when an adjacent land owner sold out, and he was probing new turf. When he detected motion in the woods, he testified that he looked through the scope on his rifle, saw the broadside of a deer and shot in the direction of what turned out to be the white of Wood's mittens. A source who spoke to Rogerson after the verdict said the hunter still maintains he fired at a running buck, although deer specialists from the State Game Department who combed the area for appropriate hoofprints found none.

Anyone who has hunted much would recognize Rogerson's plight. When you stalk woods or wait in a tree stand, other things often look or sound like deer. A recent study of hunting accidents turned up the finding that experienced hunters are often more likely than novices to mistake signs in the woods for the game they are hunting. Their background tells them what to look and listen for and when they catch a fleeting glimpse or hear a faint sound, they fill in details from experience.

Which explains how Rogerson could have mistaken motion and white in the woods for a fleeting glimpse of a deer. The question the jury had to answer was whether that excused the step he took next -- shouldering his rifle and shooting two 30.06 bullets at 45-yard range at what proved not to be what his mind's-eye saw. No rule is more fundamental to hunting and firearms safety than to identify the target and what is beyond it. Rogerson's license entitled him to shoot only buck deer -- ones with horns.

Maine law further allows shooting no closer than 300 feet from a dwelling. According to court testimony, Rogerson was less than half that distance from Wood's house.

Despite these details, the jury found him not guilty.

"The jury believed he did see a deer," said a source close to the case who asked to remain anonymous, "and that he didn't grossly deviate from what a prudent person would do in the situation."

And so the ruling stands in Maine, where locals say "No Hunting" signs are sprouting so fast on trees, hardware stores can't keep them in stock.

Hunting accidents long have occupied a special place in jurisprudence, beneficiaries of the notion that accidents happen and an assumed risk goes with gun sport.

Accidents of course do happen. Few would hold a shooter criminally responsible if an errant buckshot glanced off a concealed rock and hit a bystander out of the line of fire, or if a hunter fell in the woods, his gun went off and the shot hit the fellow in front.

Whether the incident that claimed Karen Wood's life falls in that category is a question the court decided in Donald Rogerson's favor. But from the sound of subsequent fury, the issue is far from settled.