It was Saturday night, October 17, 1992, fourteen days before Halloween. In their modest brick ranch home on a quiet treeless street, Rodney Peairs, 30, and his wife, Bonnie, were just sitting down to a supper of grits and eggs with their two children when the doorbell rang. Not expecting visitors, Bonnie gets up to peer through the curtains of the window. Unable to see clearly, she goes to the side door of the house and opens the door a crack. Almost immediately she slams the door shut and with rising panic in her voice shouts, “Rodney, get your gun!” Rodney bolts to the bedroom closet to fetch his .44 caliber Magnum pistol fitted with a night hunting scope which he keeps fully loaded alongside his shotgun, rifle, and two pellet guns.
What frightened Bonnie Peairs was the sight of two sixteen-year-old boys, one a Japanese exchange stu- dent, the other a local boy, who had rung the door- bell expecting to be welcomed to a Halloween party actually taking place five doors down the street. Yoshi Hattori was dressed in a white tuxedo jacket in an attempt to imitate John Travolta; Webb was in ordinary clothing with bandages wrapped around his head to imitate an accident victim. Driving through an unfa- miliar neighborhood to a classmate’s Halloween party, the boys had mistakenly transposed the numbers of the address: instead of number 3131, they had arrived at number 1313. The house was festively decorated with a large Happy Halloween banner stretched across the front window so they figured they had come to the right place. Walking up to the front door, they rang the doorbell expecting to be greeted by their friends. They saw someone peer out a curtain and when Bonnie Peairs opened the carport door, Webb started to speak, saying “Excuse me. . .” only to be answered by Bonnie’s slammed door.
Webb and Yoshi, then, turned to leave walking back to their car when they heard the carport door re-open. This time it was Rodney carrying a long-barreled and powerful gun pointed directly at the two boys. Yoshi, turned and skipped back toward Rodney, arms out at his sides in a dancing motion, repeating a gleeful refrain, “We’re here for the party!” Rodney assumed a crouch position and yelled, “Freeze!” but Yoshi kept moving forward. Rodney shot him in the chest from about five feet away.
The entire sequence of events took less than two minutes. No words were exchanged other than the one sentence uttered by Yoshi, “We’re here for the party” and the one word of warning uttered by Rodney Peairs, “Freeze!” Webb, standing only a few feet away, saw a man point a large gun at his friend, heard him shout “freeze,” then saw his friend collapse. Rodney shut the door and locked it while Webb screamed for help. Alarmed by the sound of the gunfire and the cries for help, a neighbor called the police. Twenty-five minutes later, Yoshi was declared dead from one fatal shot to his heart.
the Judicial process
The sheriff who arrived on the scene did not arrest Rodney Peairs or his wife Bonnie that night. Accord- ing to his later testimony, the officers believed, “He was not a criminal. It was an accident.” In Louisiana state law, a property owner has the right to use lethal force to defend his property from invaders or to compel someone to leave his property. In 1983, an amendment to the state code known as the “shoot the burglar” law permits residents to justifiably kill someone they believe to be an intruder if they are within four walls of a residence.
Was Rodney Peairs acting in defense of his family, life, and property as permitted by law? Or did Rodney Peairs commit a crime when he shot and killed Yoshi Hattori? In the minds of the law enforcement officers who arrived on the scene that night, the answer was obvious. Rodney Peairs, a meat-cutter at a local super- market, was a family man protecting his property from what he believed was a lethal threat. They did not take him into custody that night nor did they seek a war- rant for his arrest in the following days.
But the district attorney’s office took a different view of the matter. The district attorney convened a grand jury seeking to indict Rodney Peairs on a criminal charge of negligent homicide. According to the district attorney, Rodney Peairs acted negligently when he fired his .44 caliber weapon point blank at Yoshi Hat- tori. Owners of firearms have a special duty to operate these weapons with care: although they did not believe that Rodney Peairs had the desire to kill Hattori and they did believe he had been genuinely frightened by his wife’s fear and by the unusual behavior and appear- ance of the two boys that night, they argued, nonethe- less, that he acted with a degree of carelessness that was criminal. Prosecutors believed that Rodney should be held criminally liable for the death of Yoshi Hattori because of his failure to operate his firearm with suf- ficient care and diligence. The grand jury agreed and Rodney Peairs was indicted for negligent homicide.
The case attracted enormous publicity largely because of the interest taken in the case by the Japa- nese public.1 While the killing of Americans by fire- arms is relatively commonplace, in Japan these events rarely happen even among the criminal underworld. With a population half the size of America, densely crowded on a tiny series of islands, there are less than a hundred deaths from guns per year and most of these occur among organized crime gangs. Compare this to the 12,000 American deaths each year from handguns alone and you may appreciate how shocking the death of Yoshi Hattori was to the Japanese public. Almost immediately, the case became a national media attrac- tion in Japan.
In this kind of atmosphere, jury selection is always a delicate affair. Both sides presented potential jurors with elaborate questionnaires that asked the typical questions required of jurors. In addition, each attor- ney was permitted to ask questions specific to this case. The defense grilled potential jurors about their
attitudes toward gun control and about the right of a person to defend their property against invasion by intruders. The questionnaire asked potential jurors if they were members of crime-watch groups; “What do you believe needs to be done to lower the crime rate?” “how many people owned guns?” “who poten- tial jurors felt was their greatest hero?” “have you ever experienced unannounced visitors at your home, i.e. girl scouts selling cookies, charitable organizations, persons looking for directions, etc.?” From the answers to these types of questions, attorneys for each side argued that certain jurors were prejudiced against the case from the outset. Most of these arguments were made by the defense since the law gives the defense a greater number of opportunities to strike potential jurors. In this case, the final jury that was seated con- sisted entirely of Louisiana citizens who believed in the right to gun ownership, the right to keep a gun at home, and the right to use a gun to protect one’s family and property.
At the trial, there was little disagreement between the defense and the prosecution as to the “facts” dur- ing those fateful two minutes. The case hinged upon the interpretation of those facts and what was in the mind of Rodney Peairs and whether this was a rea- sonable state of mind for any common citizen con- fronted by the same set of circumstances. The law of self-defense does not require an individual to be “cor- rect” in the perception that he or she is facing a lethal threat. The law simply requires that the person act as any reasonable person would act faced with a similar set of circumstances. Would any “reasonable person” have come to the conclusion that he and his family were about to be subject to an invasion of their home? Did Rodney Peairs act as any reasonable person would have done to defend his family from a lethal threat?
According to the argument presented by the defense, Rodney Peairs acted reasonably, justifiably shooting and killing Yoshi Hattori given his percep- tion in those seconds prior to the shooting. He was, in fact, wrong in those perceptions, and he is terri- bly sorry for the tragic mistake, but he acted legally and justifiably on the information he had at the time. Alarmed by his wife’s cries and claiming never to have heard her so frightened, Rodney perceived Yoshi and Webb as invaders who were threatening his family. Rodney Peairs gave a verbal warning and Yoshi failed to heed his warning to stay back and “freeze.” It was dark and Rodney thought the camera in his hand was a weapon. Yoshi was moving erratically, waving his arms
about, and Rodney feared Yoshi might grab his own weapon from his hand. According to the defense attor- ney, Peairs acted as any reasonable person would have when he killed Hattori. He acted in self-defense. “I had no choice,” Peairs testified on the stand. “I want the Hattoris to understand that I’m sorry for everything.”2
The prosecution rejected the view that Peairs’s reac- tion was a reasonable one under the circumstances. The prosecution argued that Peairs had many alterna- tives to the lethal use of his firearm. He was well-armed when he peered out the carport window and a phone stood at his elbow in the kitchen to call the police. The yard, carport, and street were brightly lit so he could clearly see what the boys were doing. In fact, when he looked out the window, the boys had already turned and were leaving the house. They rang the doorbell just once. They did not loiter or linger about the house. They did not peer into the windows, ring the doorbell again, jiggle the doorknob of the house, try to open the door, or break into the carport door. There was no legitimate reason for Rodney Peairs to open his door and confront the boys with his gun. Even after issuing his warning, Rodney could have retreated into his house and locked the door instead of firing his gun. According to the prosecution, Peairs was guilty of the illegal discharge of a firearm. There was no justification for the firing of his weapon that night. Peairs made several bad decisions that night and deserves to be held responsible for them. “Otherwise,” said the dis- trict attorney, “anyone who comes by your house, you could kill them. You don’t need a reason.”3
The jury deliberated for less than three hours. Then they returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The twelve-person, all-white jury found that Rodney Peairs acted in self-defense when he killed Yoshi Hattori when he rang the wrong doorbell on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the evening.
the Victims’ perspective
Stories about crimes rarely chronicle the experience of those who are most affected by the crime itself, namely, the victim and their families. In the case of homicides, the survivors of the victim are often the last to be noti- fied about almost every development in the criminal case. The Haymakers, parents of Webb and Yoshi’s “host” parents in the United States, gave the parents of Yoshi Hattori the grim news of their son’s death. Masaichi Hattori, an engineer with an auto-parts man- ufacturer, and his mother, Mieko, a homemaker, flew to
Louisiana where the Haymakers tried to comfort and explain the incomprehensible to these parents and to their entire nation. Why was their son killed? What had he done to provoke such a lethal response? Why would someone shoot an unarmed young man? What were the Peairses thinking that they were so frightened by the mere presence of strangers outside their front door?
These were questions the Haymakers were at a loss to answer. Like many victims, the Hattoris sought answers to understand the reason for their son’s death. They sought to understand the behavior and motives of their son’s killer. But like all victims, they were pre- vented from asking any direct questions of the defen- dants. During the months leading up to the trial, the Hattoris were denied any direct contact with the Peairs. No letter of regret, remorse, sympathy, or expression of sorrow ever came from Peairs or his wife directly to the Hattori family.
The Hattoris took their son home to be buried in Japan. The funeral was a major media event in Japan.4 Thousands of mourners showed up to pay their respects to the Hattoris. There were flowers, bouquets, and messages from all over Japan including expressions of sympathy from Japan’s major companies, the Foreign Ministry, and the U.S. government. The Prime Min- ister of Japan called on Washington to change its gun ownership laws. There was, however, no sign of flowers or message sent from the man and woman directly responsible for the death of the sixteen-year-old boy.
The Hattoris returned to the United States several times over the next year as the criminal proceedings against Rodney Peairs churned forward. Like most victims, they felt compelled to be present, to hear, and witness the proceedings even though little new information or insight was offered to them. Hundreds of spectators showed up at the courtroom and in the throng the parents of the victim were given little atten- tion, finding it difficult to even find a seat among the crowd. At each hearing and for every day of the trial, Mr. Hattori sat impassively listening as the defense painted an unflattering portrait of his son’s behavior that night. They described Yoshi as “erratic,” “kinetic,” and even “bizarre.”
Were these truthful? Is truth what takes place in a courtroom? Not necessarily. The job of the defense is to present the facts in a light most favorable to his or her client’s interests. In this case, it was in the inter- est of Rodney Peairs that the actions of Yoshi be pre- sented as menacing in order to convince the jury that Peairs was reasonable to be afraid of him and therefore
acted legally in discharging his weapon. For grieving members of the victim’s family, such a zealous defense makes attending the trial a painful and difficult experi- ence in which they are made to feel as if their son, not the defendant, was to blame.
From the witness stand, Rodney Peairs testified that he felt deep regret over the incident. He stated in court that he was sorry but that he felt he had no choice but to shoot Yoshi. Beyond that testimony in the trial, Peairs made no attempt to contact the parents of the boy by letter, telephone, or face to face. In Japanese culture this failure to acknowledge personal responsi- bility to the victim’s family is unthinkable. In Japan, an expression of sincere and deep apology is an expected response in the wake of such a violent act.
For the victims, the long silence from Peairs was as incomprehensible and painful as the adversarial trial itself. Told that it would not be possible to interact with Peairs directly while criminal proceedings were in progress, the Hattoris believed they were finally going to hear directly from Peairs at a meeting scheduled after the acquittal. But it was not Rodney or his wife who showed up on Monday morning to the meeting, but the lawyer who continued to speak for his client and defend his actions as “justifiable.”
Even more painful for the Hattoris were the shouts of victory and celebrations that erupted when the jury returned the verdict of “not guilty.” For the Japanese the American-style adversarial system which focuses all the attention on the “battle” of the trial and declares one side the “winner” and the other the “loser” was a mockery of their understanding of justice. Many were stunned by the conduct of the courtroom scene in which spectators cheered and made the V sign for vic- tory even while the parents of Yoshi sat nearby watch- ing the spectacle.
the civil trial5
Shortly after the verdict in the criminal trial, the Hat- toris announced that they were bringing a civil suit of wrongful death against Peairs. The money, they said, was of no interest to them. But they intended to bring this suit because “they wanted the U.S. judicial system to say their son’s death was a wrongful death.”6 For the Hattoris, it was important for them to have the justice system confirm that a wrong had been done when their son was killed. According to their lawyer, Mr. Moore, they filed a civil suit because they wanted “to show that what happened was not right.”
The civil law differs from the criminal law in at least one important way. A civil trial is subject to a lower standard of proof than a criminal trial because the penalties are about making financial reparations rather than inflicting punishment on the defendant. While a defendant who loses a civil case may be required to pay damages, they cannot be punished by being sent to jail.
In the civil trial, a Baton Rouge trial court found Peairs guilty of wrongful death and ruled that he and his insurance company jointly owed the Hattoris $653,077. The state district court judge rejected the defense’s argu- ment that Peairs thought that Yoshi Hattori was a lunatic threatening to invade his home and harm his family stating that “There was no justification whatsoever that the killing was necessary to save himself or his family. . . . There was absolutely no need to the resort of a dangerous weapon.”7 Peairs was ordered to pay $85,000—the max- imum allowed under state law—for the youth’s pain and suffering, $275,000 each to his parents for the wrongful death, and about $18,000 to cover funeral expenses.
Peairs appealed the decision arguing that Hattori had been partially responsible for the incident and that therefore the amount should be reduced. This argu- ment was rejected by the appeals court. Later the Lou- isiana Supreme Judicial Court denied a writ filed on behalf of Rodney Peairs leaving the judgment against him to stand. The insurance company, Louisiana Farm Bureau Mutual, paid the 100,000 it was responsible for in the policy while Peairs is technically responsible for paying the remaining $550,000.
The Hattoris knew from the outset that Peairs was unlikely to ever repay the money. The civil trial was not about money. The Hattoris were seeking the symbolic statement from the justice system that what Peairs had done was neither reasonable nor right. The Hattoris offered a statement following the first civil verdict that stated: “We are satisfied to finally find out with whom the responsibility belongs.” Mrs. Hattori also went on to say, “Although the verdict was in our favor, the hole in my heart will always be there forever. . . . Please decrease the number of handguns as much as possi- ble.” After Peairs had exhausted all appeals, his lawyers argued that he was totally broke, having lost his job at the supermarket and his home and was living in a trailer park working as an auto mechanic.
the Gun control campaign
The Hattoris announced that they would be willing to forgo the judgment against Peairs if he would give
them the gun he had used to kill their son. Emiko Hattori said, “No matter how much financial compen- sation we are awarded, it is not equal to the loss of our son. Though the lawsuit has not yet been settled, we plan to negotiate with Peairs’ representative. We hope to use the gun as a symbol of the gun control move- ment.”8 The money they received from the insurance company was already being used to sponsor a U.S. gun control award in memory of their son. The Hattoris have donated all that they received to a foundation established in their son’s name for reform of American gun control laws.
Like many survivors of murder, for the Hattoris the biggest question is why? Rodney Peairs was not a killer or murderous criminal. The Hattoris along with many of their fellow countrymen struggled to comprehend the mindset of the Peairses that led to the violent death of their son. Yoshi’s mother wrote in an open letter to the major Japanese newspapers shortly after the acquittal: “When an innocent child is shot by mistake and the guilty party is let off scot-free, we can only conclude that such a society is sick.” The most obvious culprit in this terrible tragedy was the ubiquity of guns in every American household. To their mind, the true cause of their son’s death was the overwhelming pres- ence of guns in so many American homes.
Like many survivors, the Hattoris needed to do something constructive with their grief. Yoshi’s mother explained that their son had always hoped to do some- thing positive in the world, so in his place, they would speak out against the use of guns in American society. Within months of the shooting, by the time of the first pretrial hearing on the case, the Hattoris had begun a petition drive, signed by 800,000 Japanese citizens urging the newly elected President Clinton to push for more stringent gun control laws. In the petition written by the Hattoris the parents clearly placed the blame for their son’s death in the American laws that permit people to own guns. For this family, like many survivors of murder, an outlet for grief is to turn their pain into activism that will prevent future tragedies. Few families can accept the idea that their loved one’s death is without some value or benefit to the world.
In the petition the Hattoris wrote: “The thing we must really despise, even more than the criminal, is the American law that permits people to own guns. We know many fine Americans, but we feel a fierce anger that these Americans have let their country become a place where people must walk the streets in fear.”9 Over the next year, the Hattoris collected more than
1.8 million signatures on that petition from Ameri- cans and from Japanese. They presented this petition to President Clinton at the White House on November 22, 1995, the day that would have been Yoshi’s eigh- teenth birthday.