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As Public Memories Fade, a Private Mission Endures

CITYSCAPES / MILES CORWIN

November 18, 1995|MILES CORWIN

Just seven people showed up to memorialize Latasha Harlins this week, a quiet, somber group whose members lit incense, carried candles and posted placards in front of the home of the woman who killed her.

The brief gathering on a placid suburban street in the San Fernando Valley was a striking contrast to the boisterous protests that used to attract hundreds of people and packs of reporters and camera crews.

There was a time when the Latasha Harlins case was a \o7 cause celebre \f7 in the city--a symbol, protesters said, of the nation's double standard of justice. The case exacerbated tensions between the city's black and Korean American residents and contributed to the rage that fueled the 1992 riots. Latasha's name was invoked by some rioters as they torched buildings in South-Central Los Angeles.

But as time has passed, and the O.J. Simpson case has become the touchstone for the city's racial polarization, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince people to attend a rally for Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl killed over a bottle of orange juice.

On March 16, 1991, two weeks after the Rodney G. King beating had inflamed Los Angeles, Latasha, a high school sophomore, walked down 91st Street from her house to the Empire Market and Deli. She picked up a $1.79 plastic bottle of orange juice. The Korean-born storekeeper, Soon Ja Du, believed that Latasha was trying to steal the juice. Police and prosecutors said Latasha had the money for the juice in her hand and intended to pay for it. Du and Latasha fought over the bottle. A store security videotape showed Du shooting

Latasha in the back of the head as she appeared to be walking away.

Despite her testimony that she was in fear of her life and that she had fired accidentally, Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin refused to give Du any jail time, saying that Du had fired the gun under "great provocation."

On Nov. 15, 1991, Karlin sentenced Du to five years probation, a $500 fine and 400 hours of community service.

*

Wednesday's protest marked the fourth anniversary of Du's sentencing, and the fourth consecutive year that Latasha's aunt, Denise, has protested in front of Du's house. As she paced, Denise Harlins talked about the short, unhappy life of Latasha Harlins.

Latasha's father lived in Illinois and she rarely saw him. Her mother was murdered in a nightclub when Latasha was 9 years old. Harlins became a mother to Latasha and they lived together, along with other family members, at Latasha's grandmother's house on 91st Street.

Harlins says that the annual vigils are traumatic for her, but that she wants to let Du know that she has not forgiven, and she has not forgotten.

"We didn't get justice in the courts, so we must go to the street for some small measure of justice," Harlins said. "I come here to make sure that the injustice is never forgotten and Latasha is never forgotten."

The Du family refuses to comment.

The annual protests by Harlins and her friends and supporters, who call themselves the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee, do not stop at Du's house. They have demonstrated outside Karlin's courthouse--the judge now works in the Juvenile Court--and, on a few occasions, at Karlin's home. They also have held marches to commemorate the day Latasha was killed and protested on her birthday.

They used to attract dozens of people who drove to the protest sites in convoys of cars. But before Wednesday's protest--the first and the last of the year--the seven protesters piled into a Dodge van and headed from South-Central to Mission Hills. There were no television reporters, no camera crews and no photographers. The Du family occasionally peeked through a window of their wood and brick split-level home on a quiet cul-de-sac.

*

The Empire Market and Deli, near the corner of 91st and Figueroa streets, has been closed for years. It is boarded up with plywood and covered with graffiti. The parking lot is surrounded by chain-link fence topped by razor wire.

Harlins said she would like the Justice Committee to raise enough money to buy the market and create a memorial for her niece. But, as with many of the committee's endeavors, there has been little progress.

The committee's drive to collect enough signatures for a special election to recall Karlin stalled several years ago. The committee was unable to garner enough support to defeat Karlin when she won a six-year judicial term in 1992.

And the committee, which had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Du, discovered this week that federal investigators have dropped the case.

"We've had to endure injustice upon injustice," Harlins said. "I'll never forget the day Judge Karlin set Du free. I fell to the ground and screamed, 'No, Lord, no.' I couldn't believe there could be an injustice like this in America. I vowed to keep this issue alive. And I will keep it alive . . . as long as I am alive."

For all her discouragement, Denise Harlins is determined to continue her lonely vigil in front of Du's house every year, even if she is eventually the only one there. This, she says, is the only method of protest she has left.

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