Latasha Harlins (July 14, 1975 – March 16, 1991) was a 15 year-old African-American girl who was shot and killed on March 16, 1991 by Soon Ja Du, a 51 year-old Korean store owner. Harlins was a student at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, California. Because Harlins’ death came just thirteen days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King and Du was imposed with a probation, a fine and community service for her action, some sources cited the shooting as one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The following paragraphs summarize the transcript of court case, People v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County.The South Los Angeles store, Empire Liquor was normally staffed by Du’s husband and son. However, on the morning of the shooting, Du was working behind the counter, and her husband was outside resting in the family’s van.
Du saw Harlins putting a bottle of orange juice in her backpack. Du erroneously concluded that Harlins was attempting to steal, evidently not seeing the money Harlins was holding.Du attempted to grab Harlins by the sweater and snatched her backpack. Harlins then struck Du with her fist three times, knocking Du to the ground. After Harlins backed away Du then threw a stool at her. Harlins then picked up the orange juice that dropped during the scuffle, threwit on the counter and turned to leave. Du reached under the counter to retrieve a handgun. Du then fired at Harlins from behind at a distance of about three feet and shot her in the back of her head, killing her instantly. Du’s husband, Billy Heung Ki Du, heard the shot and rushed into the store. After speaking to his wife, who asked for whereabouts of Harlins before fainting, he dialed 9-1-1 to report an alleged holdup. Harlins died with two dollars in her left hand.
Du testified on her own behalf, stating that it was self-defense and that her life was in danger, but her words were contradicted by the statements of the two witnesses present at the time and the security camera footage, which showed her shooting Harlins in the back of the head as Harlins was attempting to leave the store. However, the Los Angeles police department ballistics expert report also found that the handgun Du used was altered in such a way that, compared to an ordinary handgun, much less pressure on the trigger was necessary to result in firing.
On November 15 1991 the jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter with a 16-year prison sentence recommendation, believing that Du’s shooting was fully within her control and she fired the gun voluntarily. The presiding judge, Joyce Karlin reduced the sentence to probation of five years, four hundred hours of community service, and a $500.00 fine.
The incident and reduced sentencing by the court exacerbated already existing tensions between African-American residents and Asian-American merchants in South Central Los Angeles. Those tensions were later interpreted as being one of the catalysts of the 1992 Los Angeles riots as numerous Korean owned businesses were attacked.
Popular rapper Ice Cube recorded the controversial song “Black Korea” as a result of the Harlins shooting on his 1991 album Death Certificate.
Popular rapper Tupac Shakur also took particular note of the Harlins’ death and in 1993, released a song entitled “Keep Ya Head Up” which was dedicated to Latasha Harlins. Thereafter, Shakur made frequent mention of Harlins in his songs, including tracks like “Something 2 Die 4 (Interlude)” (“Latasha Harlins, remember that name… ‘Cause a bottle of juice is not something to die for”), “Thugz Mansion” (“Little Latasha, sho’ grown/Tell the lady in the liquor store that she’s forgiven/ So come home”), “That’s the Way it Is” (“Tell me what’s a black life worth / A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts / And even when you take the shit / Move counties get a lawyer, you can shake the shit / Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more”), “White Mans World” (“Rest In Peace To Latasha, Little Yummy, and Kato…”) and “Hellrazor” (“Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why / Little girl like Latasha, had to die”).