In a case that underscored long-standing racial and ethnic tensions, a Korean-born grocer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter Friday in the shooting death of a 15-year-old black girl the merchant had accused of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
Soon Ja Du sat quietly, head bowed, in a packed and tense courtroom as the jury delivered its guilty verdict. She faces up to 16 years in prison for killing Latasha Harlins on the morning of March 16 at Du's grocery store, the Empire Liquor Market on South Figueroa Street.
The shooting has been blamed for inflaming already deep animosities between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in the economically depressed neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
Du, 51, shot Latasha in the back of the head after an over-the-counter scuffle involving the bottle of juice. Du, who said she thought that Latasha was going to kill her and has maintained that the shooting was accidental, remained free on $250,000 bail pending her sentencing Nov. 15.
The verdict came on the fourth day of often heated deliberations by the 12 jurors, who were escorted from the courtroom out of the path of dozens of reporters.
The jury rejected a more serious second-degree murder charge, as well as a lesser involuntary manslaughter verdict. The decision angered members of Latasha's family and some community activists.
"She got away with murder," Latasha's aunt, Denise Harlins, cried to reporters outside the courtroom. "The judicial system let her get away with murder. There is no justice."
Latasha's grandmother, Ruth Harlins, added furiously: "This system of justice is not really justice. . . . They murdered my granddaughter!"
The Du family left the heavily guarded courtroom without speaking.
"There's no victory for anybody," said Du's attorney, Charles E. Lloyd. "This was just a really very sad, heart-wrenching, soul-searching case."
Lloyd said he was surprised at the severity of the verdict and planned to ask that Du be placed on probation. The manslaughter conviction carries a maximum penalty of 11 years, but Du also faces an additional five-year term for using a firearm in committing a felony.
Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin, ruling last week that there was insufficient evidence that the killing was premeditated, reduced the maximum charge against Du from first-degree to second-degree murder.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Roxane Carvajal, who expressed disappointment in the manslaughter verdict, met behind closed doors for about half an hour with the racially mixed jury. She said half the jury at one point was prepared to vote for a second-degree murder conviction, but agreed to the lesser charge to prevent an impasse.
"They felt she definitely should be responsible for her acts," Carvajal said. "(But) I think the jury may have felt some sympathy for Mrs. Du and may have compromised in her behalf."
Several jurors told her, she said, that if they had been allowed to consider first-degree murder, they might have compromised to second-degree.
The most dramatic evidence presented to the jury in three days of testimony last week was a videotape of the shooting captured by a security camera installed near the ceiling of the market. It evidently played a major role in the jurors' decision because they were said to have replayed it often during deliberations.
Du, who at times was very emotional during the trial, at first did not react to the verdict. Then she lowered her head and began to weep silently. Her husband, Billy He Du, also dropped his head, tears welling in his eyes.
While Carvajal said the jury--with five black members--did not decide the case on the basis of race, Latasha's killing nevertheless came amid a series of bitter, violent incidents involving Korean grocers and the black community. The shooting death of a black man at another Korean-owned store in June led to a summer-long boycott by black activists, who charged that the merchants often treat residents with racist-tinged disrespect. Several stores have been firebombed.
Korean-American merchants, on the other hand, have argued that they are often the only people willing to do business in depressed, high-crime areas. Nineteen Korean-American grocers were slain on the job in Los Angeles County in the last decade, according to the National Korean American Grocers Assn.
Jerry Yu, executive director of the Korean-American Coalition, said many in the community understood Du's actions but did not defend them.
Under the efforts of Mayor Tom Bradley's office, a fragile truce between black activist groups and Korean-American merchants was announced last week. It was not clear how--or whether--Friday's developments would affect the agreement, which ended the boycotts in exchange for concessions from the Korean groups.
On Friday evening, as word of the verdict spread through the South-Central neighborhoods where Latasha lived and the Dus worked, a group of seven angry men marched in front of the Empire Liquor Market, now boarded up and posted with a for sale sign.
The men carried a huge poster with Latasha's picture and the words: "Never Again."
Not everyone was angry, however.
"I thought the jury had to do that in order to keep harmony and order," said Sidney Ginyard, 42. "You have to sort of plea-bargain. It will keep the peace. The tensions are already at an all-time high."
Throughout the trial, Korean-American and black spectators packed the courtroom in the Criminal Courts Building. On some days the hearing room was so full that the hallway outside was lined with people who could not get a seat.
On occasion, Du and Latasha supporters exchanged harsh words as they sat together in the spectators' section. At one point, Karlin was forced to order the spectators not to shout or chant in range of the jury, an order prompted by someone shouting an epithet at Du's lawyer in the courthouse hallway.
The videotape that jurors viewed showed Du and Latasha scuffling over the bottle of orange juice. Two witnesses--a 13-year-old girl and her 9-year-old brother--had testified to hearing Du accuse Latasha of trying to shoplift the juice, which the girl had stuck in her backpack before approaching the counter with $2 or $3 in her hand.
The grocer grabbed the girl by her sweater and Latasha is seen in the videotape punching Du in the face at least three times. Du then hurls a three-foot stool at the girl before reaching under the counter for a .38-caliber handgun.
As Du appears to be getting the gun and trying to remove it from its holster, the teen-ager bends and picks up the orange juice from the floor, where it had fallen and puts it on the counter. Du swats the juice away.
At that point, the teen-ager turns toward the camera, which is mounted over the entrance to the store, and appears to be walking away from Du. Then, the gun in Du's hand is seen firing. The girl falls, a single, mortal bullet wound to the back of her head.
Du's lawyers argued that she was trying to defend herself after the teen-ager struck her. The gun fired accidentally, Du's lawyers maintained. Du testified that she thought she "was going to die" after the girl hit her.
Carvajal argued that Latasha was acting in self-defense when she struck Du because the grocer had grabbed her sweater.
Du's son, Joseph, testified that the store, which the family had owned for two years, had been robbed on three occasions and had been burglarized 40 times during that time.
Shoplifting was a daily problem, he said.
Du, in her testimony, said she was dazed by the blows from the teen-ager and in fear of her life, when her hand first "touched" the gun. She said she picked up the weapon without thinking. She recalled having trouble pulling it from its holster, but said she did not remember what happened after that except that her husband, who had been sleeping in a van outside the door, ran inside the store.
The shopkeeper said she remembered hearing the gun fire and seeing Latasha collapse, but she insisted that she did not learn until hours later that the girl had been hit by a bullet and was dead.
During her closing argument, Carvajal told the jury that Du lied to her husband after the shooting about what had occurred, telling him she shot Latasha because the girl was trying to reach into the cash register.
On an audiotape of the 911 call her husband made to report the shooting, he is heard telling an operator that there had been a robbery and a shooting. He reports that his wife shot "the robber lady."
During his closing argument for the defense, attorney Richard Leonard told the jury that the shooting was a tragedy for both Du and Latasha. In rebuttal, Carvajal held up pictures of Du with a swollen eye and Latasha with her head lying in a pool of blood and asked: "Are these equally tragic?"
Du was allowed to remain free on bail after the judge agreed with defense attorneys that Du was not a flight risk. Carvajal expressed concern that Du might flee to her native South Korea, from where she immigrated in 1976.
Times staff writer Charisse Jones contributed to this story.
Murder vs. Manslaughter
Here is a look at some legal definitions:
MURDER: An unlawful killing committed with malice--that is, committed either purposely or knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances showing extreme indifference to the value of human life.
First degree: When it is willful, deliberate and premeditated. Sentence: 25 years to life. Use of a weapon could extend the sentence.
Second degree: When it occurs with malice but without deliberation or premeditation. Sentence: 15 years to life. MANSLAUGHTER: The unlawful killing of a human being without malice.
Voluntary: When it occurs during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. Sentence: 3, 6 or 11 years.
Involuntary: When it occurs during the commission of an illegal act, or when a person knows the act could result in death and fails to exercise proper care. In either case, there is no intent to kill. Sentence: 2, 4 or 6 years.