Cultures collide in manslaughter trial Japanese teen slain at La. man's door


BATON ROUGE, La. -- Two worlds are colliding in crimina court here this week, the result of a shooting last fall that reinforced a cultural gulf between the United States and Japan.

The scene in court yesterday told the story. On one side was Rodney Peairs, 31, on trial on a manslaughter charge, getting moral support from a large contingent of family members; on the other was Masaichi Hattori of Nagoya, Japan, father of a 16-year-old exchange student shot by Mr. Peairs. Stoic in a gray business suit, Mr. Hattori kept track of the proceedings with the help of a translator seated beside him.

Watching it all were a dozen or so Japanese journalists representing their country's major newspapers and television stations.

There is no dispute about the simple facts in the case. Last Oct. 17, Mr. Peairs drew a .44-caliber Magnum and shot Yoshihiro Hattori to death. The victim, a lively young man with a fondness for dancing, was looking for a Halloween partyand had mistakenly knocked on the suburban householder's door.

For many Japanese, the killing strengthened their stereotype of the United States: a violent nation, its finger on a hair-trigger. Intense focus on the case by Japan's press has been followed by an anti-gun crusade by the victim's parents. Leading a petition drive that calls for the elimination of handguns in American homes, the Hattoris have collected more than a million signatures, some of which were presented to the U.S. ambassador in December.

The response in Japan to young Hattori's death is worlds away from the relatively benign interpretation given the killing by Mr. Peairs, his lawyer and the numerous friends who have contributed to his legal defense fund. Mr. Peairs, they say, was simply defending his home.

This strategy was evident yesterday on the second day of jury selection, as Lewis Unglesby, a well-known local criminal defense lawyer who is representing Mr. Peairs, appeared to suggest in his questioning of prospective jurors that young Hattori's boldness last October might have violated a "social compact."

The lawyer, moving restlessly back and forth in front of the jury box, said, "There's a social compact between you the homeowner and me the stranger who comes up to your door, as long as I'm not acting strange or unusual."

Mr. Unglesby made a sudden lunge, startling a prospective juror. "I'm violating the social compact, and I'm alarming you," he said. "In that fear that I've created, you would make some quick judgments."

In this account, Mr. Peairs was simply an "average homeowner," in Mr. Unglesby's words. Indeed, there is some community sympathy for Mr. Peairs, a butcher who has been able to withdraw $6,500 from the defense fund created by his family.

The prosecution, as if to forestall the defense's efforts for jurors' sympathy, emphasized yesterday that Mr. Peairs' character is not at issue.

"You don't have to make a judgment about whether a person is bad or evil," said Don Wall, an assistant district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish. "You just have to make a judgment about a person's conduct."

That Mr. Peairs made a quick judgment that night, and was fearful, is evident. In an interview this month with the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, he spoke of his "fear and wonder of what's going on around us." Whether that fear was warranted by young Hattori's actions is a matter in dispute.

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