Licensed to Kill

May 25, 1993

The acquittal this week of a Louisiana man charged in the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Japanese student who rang his doorbell to ask directions to a party says something tragic about America. It shows we are a nation so fearful of crime that we are willing to tolerate excess in the name of preventing it, that we are awash in guns because citizens no longer trust government to provide for their safety, that we have become so benumbed to violence that a jury could conclude a homeowner acted "reasonably" in killing a teen-ager because the boy's Halloween costume upset his wife.

The victim, Yoshihiro Hattori, was on his way to a party last October with his American host when the two mistook the home of Rodney Peairs for their destination. Mr. Hattori's companion rang the bell and, according to testimony, frightened Mr. Peairs' wife. She summoned Mr. Peairs, who came to the door armed with a .44 Magnum handgun, saw Mr. Hattori in the yard and shouted "freeze!" When Mr. Hattori, who spoke little English, failed to obey, Mr. Peairs opened fire, killing the boy.

At Mr. Peairs' trial for manslaughter, his attorney, Lewis Unglesby, argued that his client had acted out of a reasonable fear for his safety and that of his family, given his wife's apparent distress. To the prosecution's contention that the killing was prompted by recklessness, since Mr. Peairs made no effort to ascertain whether he was actually in danger, Mr. Unglesby replied: "You have an absolute legal right in this country to answer your door with a gun. In your house, if you want to do it, you have the legal right to answer everybody that comes to your door with a gun."'

The jury apparently agreed. Throughout the trial, Mr. Peairs' supporters were present both inside and outside the courtroom and there was evidence that many in the Baton Rouge area thought he had reacted normally. "A man's home is his castle," said one potential juror -- later struck from the jury -- who was puzzled by all the fuss.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hattori's father, who attended the seven-day trial, professed amazement at the outcome. "The verdict is incredible, unbelievable," he said through an interpreter. It was a reaction shared by people around the world as well as by many Americans. The verdict seemed to signal a loss of basic values and civility without which no society can claim to serve justice. Acquittal in this case was tantamount to granting every nervous homeowner a license to kill.

In Japan, where the story was front-page news, the incident served to confirm the view of America as a place where lawlessness and callous disregard for human life are the norm. The Japanese attitude is not without a certain self-righteousness, but we would be foolish to dismiss it with the smug condescension usually reserved for foreign critics. Americans should be as appalled by this searing incident as are civilized people everywhere.

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