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Associates Call Judge Karlin Open-Minded, Independent : Courts: Friends say she carefully deliberated the case of Soon Ja Du and that she stands firm in wake of criticism.

December 09, 1991|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was her first jury trial as a Superior Court judge, and Joyce A. Karlin was facing pressure from all sides. She was about to decide the fate of Soon Ja Du, a Korean-born grocer convicted of killing a black girl in a crime that had stirred racial passions throughout Los Angeles.

Black leaders were clamoring for justice. Hundreds of Korean-Americans had pleaded for leniency in letters to the judge. Rather than simply weighing the evidence that was presented at trial, Karlin turned to more experienced judges for advice, sharing her thoughts as she agonized over what to do. When she settled on probation, those who know her say, she expected criticism to follow.

"This is not something that came to her overnight," said Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, a close friend and among those she consulted. "This is something that she worked extremely hard on. They (critics) make such a big thing about how she is a new judge, that she didn't know what she was getting into. That's hogwash. She did what she thought was right."

In the three weeks since, the judicial tables have turned on the new judge. After only three months on the bench, it is Karlin who is on trial.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner has condemned her, vowed to appeal the sentence and ordered his prosecutors to remove Karlin from all cases involving violent crimes. The judge, he declared, "has shown she has no credibility." Black community activists have denounced her as racist and have threatened to "make life miserable" for her by picketing her Manhattan Beach home. She has been the target of ongoing protests, and is the subject of a petition drive aimed at removing her from the bench.

In the courtroom, she is guarded at all times by four plainclothes sheriff's deputies. When her bailiff picks up the telephone, it is not unusual for him to hear a death threat on the other end.

In the face of all this, the 40-year-old former federal prosecutor has stood firm. Karlin, the daughter of a movie studio executive and who decided at age 9 that she wanted to be a lawyer, has refused to talk to reporters about the case.

Her friends say that while she worries about her reputation, she remains characteristically upbeat and has no regrets about the Du sentence. They describe her as someone who is not afraid to take chances--someone who takes a stand and does not back down under pressure.

Thus it was no accident that when the presiding judge of the Superior Court did his annual reshuffling of judges just before Thanksgiving, he ignored calls to reassign Karlin to civil or juvenile court and left Karlin exactly where she is--at the criminal courthouse in Compton. She is staying put even though her hope is someday to become a juvenile dependency judge, presiding over cases of youngsters who have been made wards of the court.

"She is standing against the wind," Czuleger said. "This is something that I know weighs heavily on her, but I do think that she is going to survive. As I have told her once or twice, 'You're going to be a better judge after this.' "

Said Robert Corbin, a Los Angeles defense lawyer who on several occasions opposed Karlin while she was a prosecutor: "She's independent. She's not a person who plays it safe. She's taken tough cases, and while I'm sure her life would be a lot simpler if she didn't have this controversy, she did it with her eyes open."

Affectionately called "Joey" by those who know her well, Karlin is a diminutive woman, so small and slender that as a prosecutor she shunned the podium because it blocked the jury's view of her. She is extremely youthful-looking; a friend described her as looking "like a woman in her 20s."

She was born in Caracas, Venezuela; her father was an international studio executive who later became president of Warner Bros. International. She spent her childhood in several countries--Argentina, Italy and Germany--before moving to Chicago with her family, where she attended high school. After graduating from Loyola University Law School in Chicago in 1974, she worked briefly for defense lawyers in Chicago and Los Angeles before joining the U.S. attorney's office here in 1977.

"She had all the right instincts," said Chicago defense lawyer David Schippers, for whom Karlin once worked. "She was a tiger when she needed to be in court. Her brains were beyond question. Her integrity was absolute. . . . When she sent me the article that said she had ascended to the bench I thought, 'Thank God. That's where she belongs.' "

Although she has declined to discuss the Du sentence or the events surrounding it, Karlin's remarks at the time of sentencing give some clues as to her thinking.

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