Verdict on Baton Rouge killing shocks Japanese

AMERICANS have the 'absolute legal right' to answer everyone who comes to their door with a gun, a lawyer told a courtroom in Louisiana over the weekend. The lawyer was defending a man who had used a .44 calibre Magnum to shoot dead a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student who had rung the man's doorbell expecting to find a Hallowe'en party. The man said he thought the student was going to attack him, and the jury took only three hours to acquit the man of a manslaughter charge.

Japanese television and newspapers yesterday morning led with the verdict, which amazed many in a country where crime is low and ordinary citizens are banned from owning handguns. 'Americans seem to think they can solve anything with a gun,' commented a Tokyo office worker, Akira Moraoka.

This is not the first time an American has shot at someone on private property thinking an attack was about to come, but the case of the meat market manager, Rodney Peairs, and the Japanese student, Yoshihiro Hattori, is attracting international attention because of the obvious innocence of the boy, and the stunning over-reaction of the man with the gun.

It happened last October when the boy, dressed as John Travolta in the film Saturday Night Fever and carrying only a camera, rang the Peairs' doorbell with a teenage friend, looking for a Hallowe'en party that was actually six houses away. Mr Peairs' wife panicked and called on her husband to get his gun. He went to the door and told the boy to 'freeze' but the boy, who spoke little English, apparently did not understand and kept coming. From five feet, Mr Peairs fired a single bullet into the boy's chest. 'I felt I had no choice,' Mr Peairs said.

The boy's father, Masaichi Hattori, sees the shooting as an example of the need for stiffer firearms control. 'The verdict is unbelievable,' he said. He has collected 1.6 million signatures in Japan and 200,000 in the US on a petition to limit handguns in America.

Local people in Baton Rouge were unmoved. The gun-control issue did not come up in court and most seemed to agree with the verdict. Some expressed surprise that the case had come to trial. 'It would be what a normal person would do under those circumtances,' one man said.