On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was fatally shot by Soon Ja Du, the 51-year-old Korean wife of the Empire Liquor Market owner. Du noticed Harlins stuffing a bottle of orange juice into her backpack, but she didn’t notice the money she was holding to pay for it. Her death occurred thirteen days after the release of the videotape of the Rodney King beating.
Harlins lived in South Central LA, which explained why she went to the Empire Liquor Market on that particular Saturday morning. According to Good, Harlins entered the store, went into the refrigerated section, and purchased a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. She stuffs the juice into her backpack, the top of the bottle protruding as she walks up to the cash register to pay for it.
According to an eyewitness description of the incident, Du, who was working in the store that morning, immediately began asking Harlins if she was attempting to steal her juice. “I’m trying to pay for it,” Harlins continues. Du immediately reaches for her backpack, hoping to discover what’s inside, but Harlins fights back. The fight causes Du to fall down repeatedly, but when she gets up the second time, she has a gun in her hand and is pointing it at Harlins. The juice has spilled from her bag at this time, so Harlins reaches down, picks up the bottle, places it on the counter, and walks out of the store. Du shoots her in the back of the head after that.
Soon Ja Du Murder Trial
Du was initially charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances after the incident occurred in March 1991. Involuntary manslaughter was deemed to be Du’s crime. Du should receive the maximum punishment of 16 years in prison, according to the court’s recommendation. Judge Joyce Karlin, on the other hand, decides that Du should not be imprisoned. Instead, she sentences her to probation and requires her to pay Latasha Harlin’s medical and burial expenses as well as perform community service. This decision infuriated the Black community in Los Angeles.
Judge Karlin said throughout the trial that Harlins was a criminal and Du was her victim at one point. Karlin stated in her sentencing remarks that if Harlins was still alive, she would most likely be facing charges of assault on a shopkeeper in her court.
The Black Community’s Reaction to the Murder of Latasha Harlins
After Latasha Harlins was shot on Saturday, protests erupted in front of the store the following Tuesday. This went on until the store was shut down. The African-American community was enraged by Korean-American businesses.
Following Du’s trial, there was a groundswell of public outrage, with protests taking place at the courthouse where Judge Karlin held her regular hearings. A recall initiative in the form of a petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. According to Good, the sentence was appealed to the California Court of Appeals by Ira Reiner, the district attorney at the time. ‘We will not send this sentence back to the court to be altered because of judicial discretion,’ the California Court of Appeals said the week before the [Rodney King] trial ended.