Three days after Rodney Peairs walked out of a Louisiana courtroom a free man in the shooting death of a Japanese exchange student, the case is reverberating from radio talk shows to newspaper editorial pages, raising difficult issues of law, justice and race in a nation with more than 200 million guns and where 4.2 million new guns are sold each year.
Legal experts say that in cases like those of Mr. Peairs and Bernard Goetz, the New York subway gunman whose case became a cause celebre in 1984, jurors tends to sympathize with otherwise law-abiding people confronting what they believe is a threat in an increasingly violent society.
“I think it was a fair verdict,” said Karl Lavergne, a Baton Rouge construction worker who said he owned several guns, “It’s unfortunate it happened. But I feel like in the days and times we live in now, when you see someone come to your door, that’s the first thing you think of.”
Legally, the case turned on the ability citizens have virtually anywhere in the nation to use force to protect their homes from perceived threats. But to gun control groups and many citizens, the case has become a nightmarish glimpse of the fraying of the social fabric in an overly armed nation obsessed with crime. They argue that the case is a potent argument for limiting the availability of firearms that kill 65 Americans every day. Many Similar Cases
“Thirty years ago no one even locked their doors; now we kill people who come to them,” said Melinda G. Bigler, a nanny who lives in Philadelphia. “In England, Japan and China guns are almost nonexistent. Our gun control is way too lax.”
The shooting of the exchange student, 16-year-old Yoshihiro Hattori, after Mr. Peairs mistook him for an assailant, is hardly the first questionable shooting to arouse the kind of attention and emotions this case has.
Besides the incident involving Mr. Goetz, recent cases include a Vermont homeowner’s fatal shooting of a teen-ager who was allegedly trying to steal alcohol from his garage, a Florida businessman who killed an armed robber with a shotgun after chasing him for a half-mile and a Maryland jeweler who killed two robbery suspects after chasing them through downtown Bethesda.
But, because of the international repercussions and the way a combination of a handgun and fear of crime turned a harmless incident into a fatal one, the death of the Japanese exchange student has touched a raw nerve. The case was nonstop fodder for talk shows and drew a protest march by Guardian Angels in New York. In New Orleans, officials worried that it would harm the booming Japanese tourism business. No Changes in Legal Issue
Experts say the legal issues would have been essentially the same anywhere in the country.
Daniel Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University, said that in 11 states and under the model penal code used by many jurisdictions, a person does not have the right to use lethal force if he or she is able to escape a threatening situation. Otherwise, the law generally allows people to use lethal force if they believe they are being threatened with deadly force, which can include murder, rape, kidnapping and other serious offenses.
But, if the threatening incident takes place in a person’s home, the law virtually everywhere in the nation allows a person to use lethal force.
“If you’re just talking about a doctrinal legal matter, the one place where I would bet you that any jury in the country would preserve a right to use deadly force is where a person reasonably believed that he was about to be made the subject of a forceable felony in his own home,” Mr. Polsby said. Questions of Danger
According to testimony in the Louisiana incident, the exchange student and a friend terrified the wife of Mr. Peairs when they approached her door two weeks before Halloween, mistakenly thinking a holiday party was to be held there. She screamed for her husband to get his gun. He grabbed a .44 Magnum, ordered the student to “freeze” and then shot him as he moved toward the man brandishing something that turned out to be a camera.
The legal issue turned on whether Mr. Peairs could have reasonably felt his life was in danger.
Under Louisiana law, a killing is justified when a person in a dwelling reasonably believes that deadly force is required to prevent an intruder from entering the premises or to get him to leave.
Judge Michael Erwin offered the jury little guidance on the most vital question it had to consider: just what constituted a “reasonable” belief that deadly force was necessary. “The jury found it was reasonable for Rodney to protect his family against a stranger who showed no regard for Rodney’s home, his family, his verbal warning and his gun,” said Mr. Peairs’ lawyer, Lewis Unglesby of Baton Rouge.
Mr. Unglesby said the exchange student had not been scared by Mr. Peairs’s gun because he thought it all part of a Halloween prank. “You had two people on opposite sides of the gun, with two completely different perceptions,” he said. Perceptions of Actions
Many legal experts say Mr. Hattori’s action, though clearly harmless in retrospect, could easily be seen by many jurors as sufficient cause for Mr. Peairs to believe his life was in danger.
“This was a terrible tragedy, but once you had testimony this kid had an object in his hand and he was dancing around, moving forward, you had an acquittal right there,” said Don Kates, a civil liberties lawyer and criminologist in San Francisco.
Still, some experts wonder how aggressively authorities pursued the case. And there were questions about what role the race of the defendant, who is white, and the victim, who was Asian, played in the outcome.
One caller to a talk show on radio station WLS in Chicago said yesterday: “This is a racist thing. If the guy who they killed was white, the killer would have been convicted. This is Klan country. If the guy was a minority, there’d be a riot and a new trial.”
Katherine Federle, a law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, said: “There’s at least a community sense that using deadly force is not problematic. I mean guns are really part of the milieu in Louisiana.” ‘Escalate the Violence’
Gun control advocates say the case is an inevitable result of a lethal mix of fear of crime and lax gun laws.
“What’s happening is that we’ve got a gun lobby that’s basically saying that pretty much everyone in America should be armed to the teeth because crime is rampant, the law can’t protect you, and you have to do it for yourself,” said Susan Whitmore, director of communications for the gun control group, Handgun Control. “But what you find is that guns don’t make us safer, they just escalate the violence.”
Gun opponents note that there are approximately 34,000 gunshot deaths in the United States each year, that guns cause approximately seven times as many nonfatal injuries as deaths, and that about 1,500 people die in accidental shootings yearly.
But gun proponents and many researchers say they are not convinced the Louisiana case reflects anything more than a tragic misunderstanding.
Gary Kleck, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Florida State University, argues that guns play a substantial defensive role that never shows up in statistics, when the presence of a gun, often without a shot being fired, wards off a criminal action.
He said that in recent years 10 studies had borne out the use of guns as deterrents and said his own research indicated there were 1.4 million defensive uses of guns each year. “Ninety-nine percent of the defensive uses don’t involve a gun being fired,” he said.
Still, with drive-by shootings and gun violence a routine fact of life in many cities, for many people the case hit too close to home to be brushed off.
“This seems like Wild West justice,” said Dan Wideman, a 24-year-old writer in Chicago. “But it shouldn’t surprise us because of the level of fear and paranoia in our country. The only thing shocking about it is that American society has degenerated to the point where we just take something like this for granted whereas it led the Japanese newscasts nightly.
Mr. Peairs has refused substantial amounts of money to tell his story and will continue to so, his lawyer said today.
Mr. Unglesby, the lawyer, said: “The Peairs family’s position, unequivocally, is there will be no profit from this tragedy, and that applies to me, too. If anyone makes money from this, it’s not going to be any of us. That doesn’t mean that we would refuse to cooperate with a responsible person who wants to truthfully, honestly tell the story of what has happened. But we would not take money.”
He added that a Japanese news agency had offered to pay Mr. Peairs’s legal fees in return for exclusive rights to his story but the offer was refused.