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Korean Grocer Who Killed Black Teen Gets Probation

November 16, 1991|TRACY WILKINSON and FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Saying it is not a time for revenge but for healing, a Superior Court judge Friday sentenced a Korean-born grocer convicted of killing a black teen-ager to five years' probation.

The sentence, which included a fine, community service and suspended jail time, immediately drew angry cries of protest from friends and relatives of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl killed in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice at a grocery store owned by the family of Soon Ja Du. Several community leaders also expressed shock at the sentence.

Du, who had accused Harlins of trying to shoplift, was convicted Oct. 11 of voluntary manslaughter in the case, which has been blamed for inflaming tensions between the city's black and Korean-American communities. Du could have been sentenced to as much as 16 years in prison.

"Thank you, God," Du, 51, said in Korean after she emerged from the packed courtroom, surrounded by relatives who rushed her out of the building. "I think justice was done," her attorney, Charles E. Lloyd, told reporters.

Supporters of the Harlins' family were outraged. "It's a travesty of justice," said family friend Gina Ray.

Citing Du's lack of a criminal record, Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin handed Du a suspended 10-year sentence--six years for the killing and four for use of a firearm--and ordered her to perform 400 hours of community service and pay a $500 fine. She also was placed on five years' probation.

Du shot Latasha in the back of the head after a scuffle involving the $1.79 bottle of juice. The March 16 incident at Du's Empire Liquor Market in South-Central was captured on videotape by a security camera, and the jarring scenes became the trial's most dramatic evidence.

Harlins, who witnesses said had stuck the bottle halfway into her backpack and had money in her hand, is seen in the videotape approaching the store counter. On the tape, Du grabs Harlins' sweater, and Harlins punches Du several times in the face. Then Du hurls a stool at the girl, who sets the juice on the counter and turns to walk away. Du then reaches for a pistol from behind the counter and shoots Latasha.

Karlin, who said she did not believe Du was a threat to society, said she hoped the tragedy would be used to further understanding and tolerance.

"Latasha's death should be remembered as a catalyst, to force (blacks and Koreans) to confront an intolerable situation and . . . create solutions," Karlin told a hushed courtroom guarded by extraordinary security.

"This is not a time for rhetoric. It is not a time for revenge. It should be a time of healing."

But as the judge spoke of healing, angry spectators spilled into the hallway outside the courtroom. While some of Latasha's friends and relatives sobbed, others shouted, "Murderer!" and, "We'll take this to the streets!" There were several shoving matches between spectators and television photographers as more than a dozen sheriff's deputies escorted participants in the trial to elevators.

Ruth Harlins, the dead girl's grandmother, had asked the court to impose the maximum penalty. Later, she quietly spoke of her deep disappointment. "It was an injustice," she said. Ruth Harlins' daughter--Latasha's mother--was killed in 1985.

As news of the sentence spread through the city, the office of Mayor Tom Bradley and other leaders pleaded for calm.

Calling Harlins a martyr, Ray, the family friend, said she agreed that the girl's death should serve as a catalyst for better relations between blacks and Korean-Americans.

"I'm not mad at any Korean person--I want that clear," she said. "I am angry at the justice system. . . . African-Americans don't get justice in the United States today."

Leon Jenkins, an attorney for some Harlins family members, said he was "shocked beyond imagination" by the sentence, which he said would make it all the more difficult for a healing process to begin.

Lloyd, Du's attorney, in pleading for probation for his client, argued she was "full of remorse" and had acted out of fear. The Du store had been robbed dozens of times, and the family, he said, had felt "terrorized" by gangs.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Roxane Carvajal argued before the sentence was pronounced that Du continued to refuse to accept responsibility for her actions, was more worried about her own plight than the harm caused the Harlins family and had stated that, in the same circumstances, she would not act differently.

"This is an individual who, to this day, still believes she is justified in killing Latasha," Carvajal said. "The defendant has to be punished. She has to suffer. . . . (Putting Du on probation) is to make Latasha's life meaningless."

The judge blamed the killing in part on an alteration in the gun that made it fire more easily. She said she believed Du acted out of fear of being victimized and was remorseful but unable to express the emotion because of cultural differences.

"Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately? Absolutely." Karlin said. "But was that reaction understandable? I think it was."

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