A retired bus driver who shot and killed a would-be burglar on his New Brunswick property in 2006 has been acquitted on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence.

The jury sat for4½ hours in Saint John on Friday before agreeing that George David Mason, 67,was not being unlawful or reckless when he fired the shots near his house outside Sussex a year earlier.

"This is not about someone taking aim and shooting at a trespasser or a thief or anything else: this is an accident," Mason's lawyer,Rodney MacDonald, said after the acquittal.

Just before midnight on March 22, 2006, Mason and his wife woke up to the sounds of aburglar alarm indicating that someone was breaking into their shed.

Mason — who had been targeted twice before by thieves who made off with about $8,000 in goods — loaded his rifle, went outside and, seeing no one inside a suspicious truck, fired four shots at the vehicle'stailgate and the tires.

He later said he intendedto flatten the tires, foiling an escape, and wanted to mark the vehicle to help police identify it.

But one of the bullets hit and killed 21-year-old John Ivan Smith, who was hiding in the front seat. Smith and a friend, Brian Wheaton, had been trying to steal an all-terrain vehicle from Mason's property and were using a stolen truck.

During the four-day trial, MacDonald argued thathis client did notmean to kill anyone, and thatpeople who live in the country can't count on police to show up quickly so theyoften keep guns to protect themselves.

"I honestly believe that grabbing a rifle and heading down in the dark night when you have a wife at home that's older and disabled, being visually impaired, then certainly he was the last line of defence between her and the bad guys," MacDonald said.

TheCrown had argued that Mason was being reckless and had otheroptions that night, including firing a warning shot or waiting for police.

Though the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mason showed wanton disregard for human life when he fired the shots, Crown lawyer John Henheffer issued a word of caution.

"It was a question of whether what he did was proper, and the jury thought it was proper, I guess," he said. "But it's not as easy as good guy or bad guy, because once you have good guy, bad guy, who decides?"

Henheffer would nottalk about any future appeal, except to say that it would be unlikely.

If Mason had been found guilty, he would have served a minimum of four years in prison.