Death of Latasha Harlins
July 14, 1975
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||March 16, 1991
South Central, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
|Education||Westchester High School|
Latasha Harlins (July 14, 1975 – March 16, 1991) was a 15-year-old African-American girl who was unlawfully shot and killed by Soon Ja Du (Hangul: 두순자), a 51-year-old Korean store owner. Harlins was a student at Westchester High School in Los Angeles. Because Harlins' death came 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King and Du was fined, and sentenced to probation and community service but no prison time for her crime, some sources cited the shooting as one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The following paragraphs summarize the transcript of the court case, People v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County. The South Los Angeles store, Empire Liquor, was normally staffed by Du's husband and son. However, on the morning of the shooting, Du was working behind the counter, and her husband was outside resting in the family's van.
Du observed Harlins putting a bottle of orange juice in her backpack. Police say that Du erroneously concluded Harlins was attempting to steal, and evidently did not see the money Harlins held in her hand. The police reached this conclusion after speaking with the two eyewitnesses present and viewing the videotape of the incident, recorded by a store security camera. Du grabbed Harlins by the sweater and snatched her backpack. Harlins then struck Du with her fist three times, knocking Du to the ground. After Harlins backed away, Du then threw a stool at her. Harlins then picked up the orange juice that dropped during the scuffle, threw it on the counter and turned to leave. Du reached under the counter to retrieve a handgun, then fired at Harlins from behind at a distance of about three feet (one meter) and shot her in the back of her head, killing her instantly. Du's husband, Billy Heung Ki Du, heard the shot and rushed into the store. After speaking to his wife, who asked for whereabouts of Harlins before fainting, he dialed 9-1-1 to report an alleged holdup. Harlins died with $2 in her left hand.
Du testified on her own behalf, stating that it was self-defense and that her life was in danger, but her testimony was contradicted by the statements of the two witnesses present at the time and the security camera video which showed her shooting Harlins in the back of the head as Harlins was attempting to leave the store. However, the Los Angeles police department ballistics expert report also found that the handgun Du used was altered in such a way that, compared to an ordinary handgun, much less pressure on the trigger was necessary to result in firing.
On November 15, 1991, the jury, believing that Du's shooting was fully within her control and she fired the gun voluntarily, found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 16-years. However, trial judge, Joyce Karlin, sentenced Du five years of probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a $500 fine.
Judge Karlin suggested that there were mitigating circumstances. She stated, "Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately? Absolutely. But was that reaction understandable? I think that it was." The judge added, "this is not a time for revenge...and no matter what sentence this court imposes Mrs. Du will be punished every day for the rest of her life." The court also stated that Mrs. Du shot Ms. Harlins under extreme provocation and duress and probably would never commit a crime again.
A state appeals court later unanimously upheld Judge Karlin's sentence.
The incident and reduced sentencing by the court exacerbated already existing tensions between African-American residents and Asian-American merchants in South Central Los Angeles. Those tensions were later interpreted by some members of the public and activists as being one of the catalysts of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with the mayor's office estimating that 65 percent of all businesses vandalized were Korean-owned. On August 17, 1991, while Du was awaiting trial, a small incendiary fire occurred at her store.
During the 1992 riots, Du's store was burned, and it never re-opened.
Hip hop artist Tupac Shakur also took particular note of Harlins' death and in 1993, released a song entitled "Keep Ya Head Up" which was dedicated to Latasha Harlins. Thereafter, Shakur made frequent mention of Harlins in his songs, including tracks like "Something 2 Die 4 (Interlude)" ("Latasha Harlins, remember that name... 'Cause a bottle of juice is not something to die for"), "Thugz Mansion" ("Little Latasha, sho' grown/Tell the lady in the liquor store that she’s forgiven/ So come home"), "I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto" ("Tell me what's a black life worth / A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts / And even when you take the shit / Move counties get a lawyer, you can shake the shit / Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more"), "White Mans World" ("Rest In Peace To Latasha, Little Yummy, and Cato...") and "Hellrazor" ("Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why / Little girl like Latasha, had to die").
- The People, petitioner v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Respondent; Soon Ja Du, Real Party in Interest, 1992. 5th Cal App 4th 825.
- "A Senseless and Tragic Killing: New tension for Korean-American and African-American communities". The Los Angeles Times. March 20, 1991. p. Page B6.
- "Merchant Charged in Girl's Fatal Shooting". The New York Times. Associated Press. March 22, 1991.
- Ford, Andrea and John H. Lee. "Slain Girl Was Not Stealing Juice, Police Say: The incident in which the 15-year-old was killed by a market owner was captured on a security system videotape.". Los Angeles Times. March 22, 1991. Page B1
- People v. Superior Court (Du)
- "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Historical Timeline". UC Davis.
- "Judge Who Gave Probation In a Slaying May Be Moved". The New York Times. January 24, 1992.
- U.S. Looks Into Korean Grocer's Slaying of Black Published, The New York Times, November 26, 1992
- "Grocer Given Probation in Shooting of Girl". The New York Times. November 17, 1991.
- People v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (Du), 5 Cal. App. 4th 822, 7 Cal.Rptr.2d 177 (1992), from Google Scholar. Retrieved on September 14, 2012.
- African-Americans, Koreans Try to Heal Deep Wounds, L.A. Daily News, Apr. 29, 2007
- Dressler & Garvey, Cases and Materials Criminal Law 57 (6th ed 2012)
- Salak, John (1993). The Los Angeles Riots: America's Cities in Crisis. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press. p. 24. ISBN 1562943731.
- Penelope McMillan, End to Market Violence Urged From the Los Angeles Times (August 19, 1991). Retrieved on June 19, 2012.
- The L.A. Riots: 20 Years Later — Where they are now. From the Los Angeles Times (April 20, 2012). Retrieved on June 19, 2012.
- Tom Mathews et al. "The Siege of L.A.". Newsweek. May 1992.
- David Ellis. "L.A. Lawless". Time. May 1992.
- Van Nguyen, Dean (18 October 2011). "True to the Game: Ice Cube's 'Death Certificate'". PopMatters.