Killing of Latasha Harlins
|Died||March 16, 1991 (aged 15)|
|Cause of death||gunshot wound|
|Education||Westchester High School|
Latasha Harlins (January 1, 1976 – March 16, 1991) was a 15-year-old African-American girl who was fatally shot by Soon Ja Du (Hangul:두순자), a 51-year-old Korean American convenience store-owner. Du was tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Harlins' death. The judge sentenced Du to 10 years in state prison but the sentence was suspended and the defendant was instead placed on five years probation with 400 hours of community service, a $500 restitution, and funeral expenses. The killing of Latasha Harlins, recorded on security footage, and the sentencing and failed appeal of what was widely regarded as a light sentence, are considered to have contributed to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, especially the targeting of Koreatown, Los Angeles. Harlins' death came 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
Latasha Harlins was born January 1, 1976, in East St. Louis, Illinois, to Crystal Harlins and Sylvester "Vester" Acoff Sr. Latasha had one younger brother, Vester Acoff Jr., and one younger sister, Christina. The family moved from Illinois to South Central Los Angeles in 1981. In 1982, when Latasha was six years old, her father took a job in a steel foundry while her mother worked as a waitress in a local tavern. They lived near 89th St. and Broadway, just a few blocks from where Latasha would be killed ten years later.
Acoff Sr. was known to be abusive towards Crystal, attacking and torturing her in front of Latasha and her younger siblings. Their unstable marriage eventually ended in 1983. On November 27, 1985, Crystal was brutally shot dead outside a Los Angeles nightclub by Cora Mae Anderson, Acoff's new girlfriend, leaving Latasha and her younger siblings in the care of their maternal grandmother, Ruth Harlins. The death of her mother had a devastating impact on Latasha, who began to rebel and argue with her maternal grandmother and her maternal aunt Denise. At the time of her own death in 1991, Latasha was a student at Westchester High School. She was buried next to her mother in Paradise Memorial Park, Santa Fe Springs, California.
Soon Ja Du's store, Empire Liquor, located at the intersection of 91st St. and Figueroa Ave. Vermont Vista, 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.
Shortly before 10:00 am on Saturday, March 16, Harlins entered the store. Du observed Harlins putting a $1.79 bottle of orange juice in her backpack. Du concluded Harlins was attempting to steal, and did not see the money Harlins held in her hand. Du claimed to have asked Harlins if she intended to pay for the orange juice, to which Du claimed Harlins responded, "What orange juice?" Two eyewitnesses—9-year-old Ismail Ali and his 13-year-old sister Lakeshia Combs—disputed that claim, saying that Du called Harlins a "bitch" and accused her of trying to steal, to which they claimed Harlins replied that she intended to pay for the orange juice. After speaking with the two eyewitnesses present and viewing the videotape of the incident, recorded by a store security camera, the police concluded that Harlins intended to pay for the beverage with money in hand. The videotape showed that Du grabbed Harlins by her sweater and snatched her backpack. Harlins then struck Du with her fist twice, knocking Du to the ground. After Harlins backed away, Du angrily 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 revolver, 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.
Soon Ja 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. However, the trial judge, Joyce Karlin, sentenced Du to five years of probation, 10 years of suspended prison, 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.
California Court of Appeal
A state appeals court later unanimously upheld Judge Karlin's sentencing decision, 3–0, on April 21, 1992, about a week before the LA riots. In July 1992, the Harlins family was awarded $300,000 in settlement.
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.
Effect on black and Korean relations
After the widely publicized shooting of Latasha Harlins, relations between the black and Korean communities continued to deteriorate rapidly. Despite intervention from leaders of both communities, the time after the death of Latasha Harlins was categorized by boycotts, tense debate, bitterness, Molotov Cocktails, and more convenience store murders. However, while tensions were exponentially increased because of the killing of Harlins, they were built on existing conflict that had been present in the community. Korean immigrant shop-owners have a growing presence in black communities since before the 1970s. Since then, they have been a target of anger from both black shop-owners and black customers, with competing claims from either group that say Korean shop-owners "undercut prices" by the shop-owners and that they over charge by the customers. In 1984, seven years before Latasha Harlins was shot, an editorial was posted in a black community newspaper urging a boycott of Korean stores, saying that any black person who went to their stores was a 'traitor'. Korean immigrants bought their storefronts in black neighborhoods, specifically South Los Angeles, because the real estate was significantly cheaper than other neighborhoods. The distrust runs possibly even further, because in the same editorial the writer exclaims, "The real question is, why was my brother's brains blown out fighting for those Koreans?" in reference to the Korean War. Further, the stereotypes of the two groups was a source of contension, with black people often being labeled at economically "dependent" while Koreans and other Asians are often labeled at economically self-sufficient. Tensions only continued to mount during 1991, where injustices against black Americans, and the release of the police officers who beat Rodney King were released. These events all culminated in deadly and destructive riots beginning on April 29, 1992 and continuing through May 4, 1992. Many of the targets of looting and destruction were Korean stores, with more than two-thousand Korean stores being burned or looted. Though these ethnic tensions have not resulted in wide-scale violence since 1992, the relationship between Koreans and the black community remains strained.
Los Angeles Riots in 1992
Latasha Harlin's murder was one of many events in Los Angeles that lead to the riots in 1992. While the event itself was a tragedy, another tragedy that came from the event, in the eyes of many in the black community, was that Soon Ja Du did not receive any jail time for her blatant crime. While the jury convicted Du of manslaughter, which normally carries a maximum of 16 years in prison, the judge, Joyce Karlins, commuted her sentence to probation and a mere $500 fine- this angered many in the black community, as well as other community members, who felt that the sentencing set a dangerous precedent. The sentencing of Soon Ja Du eerily reflected that of the police officers who beat Rodney King. In both cases, there was concrete video evidence depicting wrongdoing and in both cases, the defendants did not serve any jail time. After the verdict in Rodney King's case was delivered, massive riots ensued in Los Angeles, protesting in anger the miscarriage of justice for black victims and racial inequality. While Rodney King's case was the immediate catalyst to the violence, cases like Latasha Harlins' fueled anger and demonstrated injustices against black people, which ultimately lead to the riots.
Judge Joyce Karlin Fahey
Karlin's rulings in the case prompted Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner to instruct his deputies to effectively bar Judge Karlin from trying cases by invoking a statute to remove a judge for any reason. In justifying his directive, he said "[t]his was such a stunning miscarriage of justice that Judge Karlin cannot continue to hear criminal cases with any public credibility."
Karlin became the target of protests and an unsuccessful recall campaign. Denise Harlins, Latasha Harlins' maternal aunt, led protests outside Karlin's home and the Compton courthouse. Protesters noted that a week after Latasha Harlins' death, a Glendale man received a more severe sentence than Du for kicking a dog. After the Los Angeles Times endorsed one of her opponents in her re-election campaign, she wrote a letter to the newspaper, saying "[I]f 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." 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. Karlin resigned from the bench in 1997. Upon hearing of retirement, Harlins' maternal aunt Denise stated, "I'm glad to hear that she's removed herself from the bench and that she's retired. But she didn't belong [on the bench] anyway." Since retiring from the bench Karlin has used her husband's surname Fahey.
Representation in culture
Hip-hop artist 2Pac 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 Kato"), "Hellrazor" ("Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why/Little girl like Latasha, had to die") and "N.I.G.G.A" ("Korean motherfuckers was crooked/So niggas had to burn and loot 'em [...] Lickin' off shots for Latasha, that's proper").
Gabriel Kahane composed a song about the incident entitled "Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)".
Steph Cha's novel Your House Will Pay centers on the aftermath of the murder of a 16-year-old African-American girl in South-central Los Angeles. It is a fictionalized account of Latasha Harlins' death and the effects on both her family and the family of the shooter.
Sapphire, in her book American Dream wrote the poem Strange Juice (or the murder of Latasha Harlins) giving voice to the murdered girl.
Adaeze Nkechi Nwosu's debut novel, Heal the Hood, is about the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Latasha Harlins' murder is mentioned and referenced several times in the novel since it was one of the causes of the LA Riots.
In film and television
The short documentary film A Love Song for Latasha (2019) gives some biographical background on Latasha Harlins's life, drawing on memories from her cousin and her best friend. Directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 93rd Academy Awards, 2021.
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