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Videotape Shows Teen Being Shot After Fight : Killing: Trial opens for Korean grocer who is accused in the slaying of a 15-year-old black girl at a South-Central store.

October 01, 1991|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A videotape played Monday in a Los Angeles courtroom showed that Latasha Harlins had turned away from a scuffle with a Korean grocer when the black teen-ager was shot in the back of the head.

"This is not television. This is not the movies. This is real life," Deputy District Attorney Roxane Carvajal had warned the jury. "You will see Latasha being killed. She will die in front of your eyes."

The graphic images of the killing of 15-year-old Harlins, captured by a security camera inside the Empire Liquor Market in South-Central Los Angeles, drew gasps in the packed Superior Court courtroom where grocer Soon Ja Du is being tried for murder.

Some members of Harlins' family wept as they watched the March 16 shooting on television monitors. Du, 49, sat at the defense table crying after the tape was shown for the first of numerous times during the day and for the first time in public.

In his opening statement, Du's attorney, Charles Lloyd, contended that Du pulled a handgun in self-defense and accidentally shot Harlins. He said Du feared for her safety because her son had been beaten and forced to pay extortion at the store and she was aware of nearby merchants who had been killed during robberies.

The videotape of the incident lasted less than a minute, but showed Harlins and Du grappling at the store counter in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. It also shows Du pointing a handgun and Harlins dropping to the floor, mortally wounded.

There was no audio on the tape, but the prosecution's first two witnesses--9-year-old Ismail Ali and his 13-year-old sister Lakeshia Combs--testified that there was a sharp exchange and name-calling by Du and Harlins.

The youngsters, who were at the store to buy hair gel for their mother, said Du had falsely accused Harlins of trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, then after a scuffle threw a stool at Harlins and shot her as the teen-ager walked away.

"You bitch, you are trying to steal my orange juice," the boy quoted Du as saying when Harlins approached the store's counter with currency in her hand and the bottle of juice "halfway" protruding from her backpack.

"The Oriental lady started pulling on her sweater saying: 'That's my orange juice,' " the boy testified under cross-examination by Du's lawyer. "The girl was saying: 'Let me go. Let me go.' "

Harlins, after telling Du she intended to pay for the juice, hit the grocer twice in the face as Du held onto her clothing, the witness said.

He testified that Harlins did not use swear words, but his sister's testimony contradicted that. She said Harlins and Du called each other "bitch."

The sister firmly denied Lloyd's repeated suggestion that Harlins had threatened to kill Du.

"She was trying to walk out the door," when she was shot, Lakeshia Combs testified. Harlins hit Du four times and one of the blows caused Du's eye to swell, Combs said.

A police officer testified later that injuries Du received may not have all come from the fight with Harlins.

Officer Ralph Spinello told the jury that when he entered the store, Du was sitting in a chair behind a counter and her husband started slapping her "at first not so hard, gradually to very hard slaps until I had to stop him . . . because of the force he was using."

Under cross-examination, the officer acknowledged that the blows from the husband probably were not as forceful as those attributed to Harlins.

In the prosecution's opening statement, Carvajal said the gun used by Du had been altered by someone so that the trigger could be pulled with little pressure.

In cross-examining Combs and her brother, Lloyd pointed out discrepancies among statements they gave to police the day of the shooting, to the grand jury that indicted Du, and to the jury Monday.

The Harlins shooting is one of several confrontations between Korean grocers in South-Central and their customers. Some black activists say the incidents stemmed from racism on the part of the Koreans. Some Koreans and others contend that activists who have called for boycotts at a handful of Korean-owned stores are fanning racial tensions.

Du's trial, originally scheduled to be heard in Compton, was moved to Los Angeles this month by a judge who concluded that jurors and witnesses might be "intimidated" in a city that has a large black population.

Proceedings held in Compton were marked by confrontations between Du's supporters and backers of Harlins' family.

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