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Judge Who Gave Probation in '91 Killing Quits

Courts: Joyce Karlin was assailed for giving light sentence to a Korean-born grocer who killed a black girl over a bottle of orange juice. She cites family reasons for leaving bench.

February 11, 1997|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joyce A. Karlin, the judge whose light sentencing of a Korean-born grocer in the 1991 shooting of a 15-year-old black girl inflamed already simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles, said Monday that she was resigning from the bench.

In a written statement, Karlin, 46, now a judge in Juvenile Dependency Court, said she was ending her seven-year judicial career to spend more time with her family.

The case of Soon Ja Du, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Latasha Harlins, was the first Karlin took on after becoming a Superior Court judge in 1991.

After a brief scuffle over a bottle of orange juice, Du had shot Harlins in the back of the head as the girl was leaving the Empire Market on Figueroa Street in South-Central Los Angeles. A store video camera captured the incident, which came just two weeks after LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney G. King.

For many in Los Angeles, the two videotapes became emblems of racial injustice and inequality. Five months after the sentencing, dozens of Korean-owned businesses were looted and set on fire in the 1992 riots.

Karlin, a former federal prosecutor appointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson, could have sentenced Du to 16 years in state prison. Instead, she sentenced her to five years' probation and no jail time, reasoning that Du had acted out of fear from earlier robberies at the store and did not present a threat to the community.

"This is not a time for rhetoric," Karlin said in imposing the sentence. "It is not a time for revenge. It should be a time for healing."

Her sentence seemed to have the opposite effect, however; she became the target of protests and an unsuccessful recall campaign. Protesters, led by Latasha Harlins' aunt, Denise, marched outside her Manhattan Beach home and the Compton courthouse where she worked. Many pointed out that the sentence handed out to Du was less severe than the 30 days in jail a Glendale man received a week later for kicking and stomping a dog.

"I'm glad to hear that she's removed herself from the bench and that she's retired," Denise Harlins said Monday. "But she didn't belong [on the bench] anyway."

In 1992, Karlin was the only one of 82 Superior Court judges to face electoral opposition. When The Times endorsed one of her opponents, she wrote an impassioned, angry letter to the editor in defense of both her decision and the principle of judicial independence.

"If judges have to look over their shoulders as they decide a case; if they have to test the political winds in order to arrive at a politically correct verdict--then the judicial system and the freedoms it guarantees will be destroyed," Karlin wrote.

Karlin defended her sentence of Du as within legal guidelines, a decision made "after careful deliberation" on the evidence.

The Harlins family turned the death of Latasha and the sentence of Du into a cause celebre, holding vigils outside the Du residence every year on the anniversary of her sentencing.

At one point, Denise Harlins interrupted an awards ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel for Du defense attorney Charles Lloyd. Karlin and Du's son also attended that ceremony.

"All you people sitting, applauding over a child killer," Harlins yelled. "Latasha was defenseless. She didn't do nothing!"

A state appeals court upheld the sentence in April 1992, a week before the riots.

Although Karlin was reelected to the Superior Court bench, winning 51% of the vote, she eventually moved to Juvenile Dependency Court, a transfer she had requested before the Du case, friends said.

"I'm very saddened and disappointed that she's retiring, but happy for her," said Superior Court Judge Stephen Czuleger, a longtime friend. "I'm saddened for the system that we're going to be losing her."

As a dependency court judge, Karlin presided over cases involving abused and neglected children. Judge John Henning, a colleague, described Karlin as a hard-working and dedicated jurist who relished working with children.

"She's an outstanding jurist, very caring and very compassionate," Henning said. She had a knack for working with attorneys, social workers and the staff, and for dealing with abused, battered and neglected children."

In her written statement, Karlin said her resignation would become effective next month. "I have been honored to spend the last 20 years serving the public but now I want to devote time to my family," Karlin wrote.

Before her appointment to the bench, Karlin was an assistant U.S. attorney for 14 years.

Karlin said she would "remain involved in the juvenile justice system," pursing volunteer work in that area.

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