Latasha Harlins (July 14, 1975 – March 16, 1991) was a 15-year-old African-American girl who was shot in the head and killed by Soon Ja Du (Hangul: 두순자), a 51-year-old female 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 cited the shooting 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'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 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, threw it on the counter and 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 alleged 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, and 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 compared to an ordinary handgun, it required much less pressure on the trigger to fire.
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, didn't 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' 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.
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 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 burned, and it never re-opened.
Hip hop artist Tupac Shakur 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 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").
Rapper Ice Cube composed a song about the incident for his album Death Certificate entitled "Black Korea".