Death of Latasha Harlins
July 14, 1975
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||March 16, 1991
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Gunshot|
|Education||Westchester High School|
Latasha Harlins (July 14, 1975 – March 16, 1991) was a fifteen-year-old African-American girl who was shot in the head by Soon Ja Du (Hangul:두순자), a fifty-one-year-old female convenience store owner from South Korea, who was tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Harlins' death. Harlins was a student at Westchester High School in Los Angeles. Harlins' death came 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Du was fined $500 and sentenced to five years of probation and 400 hours of community service but no prison time for her crime. Some have cited the shooting of Latasha Harlins as one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Death of Latasha Harlins
Du's store, Empire Liquor, located in South Los Angeles, 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 van.
Du observed Harlins putting a bottle of orange juice in her backpack. Police said that Du erroneously concluded Harlins was attempting to steal, and 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. The videotape showed that Du grabbed Harlins by her sweater and snatched her backpack. Harlins then struck Du with her fist three times, knocking Du to the ground. After Harlins backed away, Du threw a stool at her. Harlins then picked up the orange juice bottle that dropped during the scuffle, Du snatched the bottle from her, and Harlins turned to leave. Du reached under the counter, retrieved a handgun, and fired at Harlins from behind at a distance of about three feet (one meter). The gunshot struck Harlins in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Du's husband, Billy Heung Ki Du, heard the gunshot and rushed into the store. After speaking to his wife, who asked for the whereabouts of Harlins before fainting, he dialed 9-1-1 to report an attempted holdup.
Du testified on her own behalf, claiming that the shooting was in self-defense and that she believed her life was in danger. But her testimony was contradicted by the statements of the two witnesses present at the time, as well as the store's security camera video, which showed Du shooting Harlins in the back of the head as the teenager turned away from Du and attempted to leave the store. The Los Angeles Police Department ballistics report also found that the handgun Du used was altered in such a way that it required much less pressure on the trigger to fire than an ordinary handgun.
Decision and sentence
On November 15, 1991 a jury found that Du's decision to fire the gun was fully within her control and that she fired the gun voluntarily. The jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 16 years. The jury recommended the maximum sentence for Du. However, the trial judge, Joyce Karlin, did not accept the jury's sentencing recommendation and instead sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.
Judge Karlin suggested that there were mitigating circumstances in Harlins's death. She stated, "Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately? Absolutely. But was that reaction understandable? I think that it was." Karlin 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 Du shot Harlins under extreme provocation and duress and deemed it unlikely that Du would ever commit a serious crime again. Furthermore, Karlin deemed that Du's capacity to act rationally in the situation was undermined by her experience with past robberies.
Court of Appeals of California
A state appeals court later unanimously upheld Judge Karlin's sentencing decision in April 1992, a week before the riots. 
The incident and reduced sentencing by the court exacerbated the 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 for the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The Los Angeles mayor's office estimated that 65 percent of all businesses vandalized during the riots were Korean-owned. On August 17, 1991, while Du was awaiting trial, a small fire occurred at her store.
During the 1992 riots, Du's store was looted and burned down, and it never reopened. The property later became a market under different ownership.
Hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur took particular note of Harlins's 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 in 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").
Gabriel Kahane composed a song about the incident entitled "Empire Liquor Mart".
District Attorney Ira Reiner denounced Judge Karlin and pledged to use an unusual California law to bar her from trying criminal cases. "This was such a stunning miscarriage of justice that Judge Karlin cannot continue to hear criminal cases with any public credibility," he asserted.
State court records show that the sentence was extremely light. Of 715 people convicted of voluntary manslaughter in California in 1990, only six received probation. The vast majority went to state prisons or county jails, with an average sentence of more than eight years, according to the state's Administrative Office of Courts.
Joyce Karlin became the target of protests and an unsuccessful recall campaign. Protests, led by Latasha Harlins' aunt, Denise, marched outside her Manhattan Beach home and the Compton courthouse. Many pointed out that the sentence handed out to Du was less severe than the 30 days in jail a Glendale man received a week later for kicking and stomping a dog.
"I'm glad to hear that she's removed herself from the bench and that she's retired," stated Denise Harlins. "But she didn't belong [on the bench] anyway."
"If judges have to look over their shoulders as they decide a case; if they have to test the political winds in order to arrive at a politically correct verdict--then the judicial system and the freedoms it guarantees will be destroyed," Karlin wrote in a letter to The New York Times after they endorsed one of her opponents.
The Harlins family held vigils outside the Du residence every year on the anniversary of her sentencing.
Denise Harlins interrupted an awards ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel for Du defense attorney Charles Lloyd. Karlin and Du's son also attended that ceremony.
"All you people sitting, applauding over a child killer," Harlins yelled. "Latasha was defenseless. She didn't do nothing!"
Karlin was re-elected to the Superior Court bench, she then moved to Juvenile Dependency Court, a transfer she had requested before the Du case. "I have been honored to spend the last 20 years serving the public but now I want to devote time to my family," Karlin wrote.
- 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.
- People v. Superior Court (Du)
- "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Historical Timeline". UC Davis.
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- 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)
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- 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.
- "Unusual Threat for a Judge in a Bitter Slaying Trial". The New York Times. November 22, 1991.