Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner on Monday struck back at a Superior Court judge who gave a Korean-born grocer probation in the shooting death of a 15-year-old black girl, declaring that he would attempt to keep the judge from ever trying another criminal case.
Reiner, who called the sentence a “stunning miscarriage of justice,” announced that he has ordered his prosecutors to seek the removal of Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin each time she is assigned a criminal case. Under California law, attorneys may remove a judge before the start of a trial without giving a reason.
Because the district attorney’s office prosecutes every criminal case that comes through Los Angeles County Superior Court, the order--which Reiner has used against other judges--could end, or seriously curtail, Karlin’s budding career as a criminal court judge.
The announcement, while praised by some black community leaders, was strongly denounced by several judges. Ricardo Torres, presiding judge of Los Angeles County Superior Court, called Reiner’s plan “outrageous” and vowed to use his legal authority to thwart it.
During a packed press conference, Reiner said the sentence imposed on the grocer “was such a stunning miscarriage of justice that Judge Karlin cannot continue to hear criminal cases with any public credibility. . . . There is no way I can send deputy district attorneys into her courtroom on these types of cases when by this sentence she has shown she has no credibility.”
He added that the sentence was “far short of what the public has a right to expect when a life is taken.” He also said he will review comments made by the judge to see if the sentence should be appealed on the grounds that Karlin abused her judicial discretion.
Karlin, a 40-year-old former federal prosecutor who has been on the Superior Court bench for four months, could not be reached for comment. But Torres said he spoke with Karlin and that she was “concerned, worried about her future.”
On Friday, Karlin sentenced Soon Da Ju, 51, to five years of probation, a $500 fine and 400 hours of community service for the shooting death of Latasha Harlins. The shooting occurred March 16 in Du’s South-Central Los Angeles grocery store after Du and the teen-ager argued over a bottle of orange juice.
As did the crime, the sentence sparked outrage in the black community. But there was support for Reiner on Monday.
“Obviously, we’re pleased,” said Danny Bakewell, president of the black charitable group Brotherhood Crusade and an outspoken critic of Karlin throughout Du’s trial. “There are other people who are part of the criminal justice system who see through (the sentence). It reinforces how appalled and outraged we are. We applaud Ira Reiner.”
Bakewell also pledged to campaign against Karlin next June when she faces voters for the first time.
Denise Harlins, an aunt of the dead girl, said she welcomed the district attorney’s action, but was still outraged at the sentence. Harlins, who went to the Criminal Courts Building on Monday to meet with Reiner, said she would file a complaint against Karlin this week with the state Commission on Judicial Performance.
Judges, including Torres, characterized Reiner’s action as a political maneuver designed to intimidate other judges into handing out harsh sentences. Reiner, who is in his second term as district attorney, is gearing up for his reelection bid next June.
“I think it’s an abuse,” said Michael Ullman, a Sacramento municipal judge and president of the California Judges Assn. “Obviously it sends the message to judges by an elected prosecutor that if you are not going to do what I am asking for in sentencing then I will see to it that you don’t do any more criminal cases.”
Torres said: “It is nothing more than a political decision on the part of Ira Reiner to try to intimidate the judiciary.”
Torres vowed to do “everything within my power” to see that Karlin continues to hear criminal cases.
This is at least the fourth time in the last six years that Reiner invoked a legal procedure under which California prosecutors and defense attorneys can remove a judge without explanation. While the “affidavits of removal” are used frequently in individual cases, it is rare for a chief prosecutor to order all his deputies to use them repeatedly against a particular judge.
Last year, Reiner used the so-called blanket affidavits against Judge G. William Dunn, who sits on the Superior Court in Long Beach. As a result, Dunn said he has been transferred to hearing probate cases and presiding over legal motions. He has heard only one criminal case in which another judge was removed because of a blanket affidavit. The affidavit can only be used once in each case.
Torres said he would use the one-time-only rule to permit Karlin to continue hearing criminal cases. In essence, he would assign Karlin whenever another judge has already been removed from a case.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that Judge Karlin has the proper assignments,” Torres said. “Am I going to be intimidated by Ira Reiner? I am not going to give a knee-jerk reaction to Ira Reiner’s move.”
Torres said the action by Reiner is an indication that the law needs to be changed. He and Ullman noted that in the federal courts, a judge may only be removed from cases in which either the prosecution or the defense has proved that the jurist is prejudiced.
Reiner accused Karlin of abusing her judicial authority in the Du case and said a judge of her “inexperience” should never have been assigned to such an important case.
The case underscored racial tension between Korean merchants and some of their customers in Los Angeles’ poorest communities. Black activists have accused the merchants of racism and of being disrespectful to black customers. Du’s store never reopened after the shooting and another store where a black customer was killed was closed by its owner after activists conducted a boycott.
Du shot the teen-ager in the back of the head after the two struggled over the $1.79 bottle of orange juice, which the grocer had accused the girl of trying to steal. The teen-ager had put the container on the counter and was walking away when she was shot.
The incident was recorded by a security camera inside the Empire Liquor Market in South-Central. That tape became the most graphic and dramatic evidence in Du’s three-day jury trial last month.
The jury was told by Karlin that the maximum charge on which Du could be convicted was second-degree murder. The jurors found her guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. Du could have been sentenced to 16 years in prison.
But Karlin, citing Du’s lack of criminal record and saying the grocer was not a threat to the community, sentenced her instead to 10 years in prison, then suspended that sentence. In addition to ordering Du to carry out 400 hours of community service, the judge required Du to reimburse the Harlins family the cost of the dead girl’s funeral.
Denise Harlins said Monday that she would never take money from Du. She said the $3,400 cost of Latasha’s funeral was paid by a victim’s rights group and community organizations.
The district attorney’s office has broad authority to remove individual judges from criminal cases. Each side in a court case has the right to disqualify a judicial officer from presiding by filing a sworn statement, or affidavit, stating that it will not be possible to get a fair trial from that judge. This option can be exercised once per case. But the district attorney’s office can repeatedly “affidavit” or “paper” an individual judge, making it impossible for the jurist to hear any criminal cases. Often, the objective is to drive the judge from the criminal bench.