New Site OKd for Grocer’s Murder Trial
The mostly black community of Compton is too intimidating a setting for the trial of a Korean grocer accused of murdering a black teen-ager, a Superior Court judge said Tuesday, ruling that the politically charged case be tried elsewhere in Los Angeles County.
“My concern is that jurors and witnesses could be intimidated . . . simply by the trial being held here in Compton,” said Judge Lois Anderson-Smaltz, citing the scores of Korean and black activists who have crowded the courtroom, jostling and muttering at one another throughout the hearings of grocer Soon Ja Du.
Anderson-Smaltz continued the case until Sept. 16 so that another courtroom within Los Angeles County could be found. Her action came at the request of Du’s lawyer, who argued that a fair trial might be impossible in Compton.
Recently, the judge noted, a Korean court interpreter has refused to work on the trial if it means driving to the southwest Los Angeles suburb. And while jurors on the case would be drawn from throughout southwest Los Angeles, the judge said, they might be unduly swayed by shows of support for Du or the victim, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins.
But the ruling--which the judge hinted at Monday and made final on Tuesday--was criticized by Compton residents and black activists as a political move designed to make sure that Du “will get off with just a slap on the wrist.”
“When we first started meeting at the court, there was an enormous amount of Koreans there and nobody said anything. But now that we have more support, they want to move the trial,” said the victim’s grandmother, Ruth Harlins.
A Compton city employee who asked not to be identified said: “Intimidation? Give me a break. Every time there’s a court date in that case, they (Du’s supporters) come in with an entourage of 20, 30, 40 people, moving through the courthouse like they was taking over Tian An Men Square. If that’s not intimidation, I don’t know what is.”
The ruling was the latest twist following from the March 16 slaying of Harlins, whom Du allegedly shot after accusing her of trying to shoplift a bottle of orange juice from the family store, the now-closed Empire Liquor Market in South-Central Los Angeles. Prosecutors said the evidence in the case, including a videotape from the store camera, showed that Harlins had put the juice in a backpack and was attempting to pay for it when the dispute erupted.
An autopsy showed that the girl was shot in the back of the head as she turned to leave the store. But Du’s attorney, Charles Lloyd, has disputed that, saying Du was attacked by Harlins and was acting in self-defense.
In the aftermath of the shooting--to which Du has pleaded innocent--Du’s store has been picketed, boycotted, vandalized and set afire as long-smoldering tensions have reignited between impoverished black residents and struggling Korean merchants in South-Central Los Angeles.
And as the case has moved toward trial, the unrest has entered the courtroom.
At every turn in the case--even for minor pretrial motions--supporters of Du and the Harlins family have packed the galleries, jostling in elevators, muttering within earshot of one another, staging demonstrations and occasionally heckling lawyers.
For instance, more than 100 of Du’s fellow church members attended Du’s arraignment. But when Du was freed on $250,000 bail, one of the Harlins’ supporters leaped angrily to his feet and shouted at Du’s attorney, who is black, “How much did they pay you?”
Other hearings have featured subtler but no less hostile exchanges, as black activists have muttered curses at Du within earshot of her family and friends.
In part because of the charged atmosphere, Du’s attorney had asked earlier this month that the trial be moved out of Los Angeles County, or failing that, shifted to the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Criminal Courts Coordinator John Iverson said such transfers within Los Angeles County are common. He could not confirm the contention of activists and court observers that it is unusual for a case to be moved because of ethnic or political unrest.
But residents of Compton--which is 53% black, 44% Latino, 2% Asian and 1% Anglo--say that such tensions are still no reason to move the proceedings from their community. They noted that neither Du nor the Harlins family nor the majority of their supporters are from Compton.
“I’m highly disappointed in the ruling and I question the reasoning,” said Compton Mayor Walter Tucker III. “The intensity around this case will follow the trial wherever it goes. . . . If it ends up not in an African-American community, I’m sure the courtroom there will also be filled with controversy.”