In a case that underscored long-standing racial and ethnic tensions, a Korean-born grocer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter Friday in the shooting death of a 15-year-old black girl the merchant had accused of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
Soon Ja Du sat quietly, head bowed, in a packed and tense courtroom as the jury delivered its guilty verdict. She faces up to 16 years in prison for killing Latasha Harlins on the morning of March 16 at Du's grocery store, the Empire Liquor Market on South Figueroa Street.
The shooting has been blamed for inflaming already deep animosities between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in the economically depressed neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
Du, 51, shot Latasha in the back of the head after an over-the-counter scuffle involving the bottle of juice. Du, who said she thought that Latasha was going to kill her and has maintained that the shooting was accidental, remained free on $250,000 bail pending her sentencing Nov. 15.
The verdict came on the fourth day of often heated deliberations by the 12 jurors, who were escorted from the courtroom out of the path of dozens of reporters.
The jury rejected a more serious second-degree murder charge, as well as a lesser involuntary manslaughter verdict. The decision angered members of Latasha's family and some community activists.
"She got away with murder," Latasha's aunt, Denise Harlins, cried to reporters outside the courtroom. "The judicial system let her get away with murder. There is no justice."
Latasha's grandmother, Ruth Harlins, added furiously: "This system of justice is not really justice. . . . They murdered my granddaughter!"
The Du family left the heavily guarded courtroom without speaking.
"There's no victory for anybody," said Du's attorney, Charles E. Lloyd. "This was just a really very sad, heart-wrenching, soul-searching case."
Lloyd said he was surprised at the severity of the verdict and planned to ask that Du be placed on probation. The manslaughter conviction carries a maximum penalty of 11 years, but Du also faces an additional five-year term for using a firearm in committing a felony.
Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin, ruling last week that there was insufficient evidence that the killing was premeditated, reduced the maximum charge against Du from first-degree to second-degree murder.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Roxane Carvajal, who expressed disappointment in the manslaughter verdict, met behind closed doors for about half an hour with the racially mixed jury. She said half the jury at one point was prepared to vote for a second-degree murder conviction, but agreed to the lesser charge to prevent an impasse.
"They felt she definitely should be responsible for her acts," Carvajal said. "(But) I think the jury may have felt some sympathy for Mrs. Du and may have compromised in her behalf."
Several jurors told her, she said, that if they had been allowed to consider first-degree murder, they might have compromised to second-degree.
The most dramatic evidence presented to the jury in three days of testimony last week was a videotape of the shooting captured by a security camera installed near the ceiling of the market. It evidently played a major role in the jurors' decision because they were said to have replayed it often during deliberations.
Du, who at times was very emotional during the trial, at first did not react to the verdict. Then she lowered her head and began to weep silently. Her husband, Billy He Du, also dropped his head, tears welling in his eyes.
While Carvajal said the jury--with five black members--did not decide the case on the basis of race, Latasha's killing nevertheless came amid a series of bitter, violent incidents involving Korean grocers and the black community. The shooting death of a black man at another Korean-owned store in June led to a summer-long boycott by black activists, who charged that the merchants often treat residents with racist-tinged disrespect. Several stores have been firebombed.
Korean-American merchants, on the other hand, have argued that they are often the only people willing to do business in depressed, high-crime areas. Nineteen Korean-American grocers were slain on the job in Los Angeles County in the last decade, according to the National Korean American Grocers Assn.
Jerry Yu, executive director of the Korean-American Coalition, said many in the community understood Du's actions but did not defend them.
Under the efforts of Mayor Tom Bradley's office, a fragile truce between black activist groups and Korean-American merchants was announced last week. It was not clear how--or whether--Friday's developments would affect the agreement, which ended the boycotts in exchange for concessions from the Korean groups.