With her astounding decision that the killing of Latasha Harlins warranted not a single day of jail, Judge Joyce A. Karlin is destined to become the Anita Faye Hill of the California judiciary, with a stunned public forever wondering what motivated her in the most public controversy of her career. There the similarity ends. Hill, whose testimony highlighted an important issue, put her personal reputation and professional future on the line for a cause she believed in. Karlin, who has retreated behind a cloak of silence and “judicial discretion,” only succeeded in throwing a city into turmoil. Drafted into duty as Karlin’s “shovel brigade,” Los Angeles’ political and legal leaders and the African-American and Korean-American communities must now trail her parade of insensitivity and arrogance with the unpleasant task of cleaning up the mess.
It was the utterly senseless nature of Soon Ja Du’s crime that made it so notorious: She shot Latasha Harlins at point-blank range in the back of the head as the girl walked away from an argument over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Judge Karlin knew the entire city was watching this case, and she knew her sentence would send a message. The message is clear: Black life is worthless. Unlike 1950s’ Mississippi, however, in 1991 Los Angeles such a message does not come without a price.
One absolute precondition to Los Angeles’ ability to thrive as a multiethnic metropolis is that every group must retain the basic belief that the judicial system, arbiter of so many interethnic disputes, will treat it with a minimum of fairness and respect. In the short-term, the hostility produced by Du’s sentence damages the attempts at dialogue and cooperation between the African-American and Korean-American communities.
Is there one political or community leader who can credibly tell African-American residents of Los Angeles that they should trust the court system to treat them fairly?
Karlin’s dereliction of duty has done so much damage to community relations and to the reputation of the judiciary that it is impossible to understand what was on her mind when she arrived at the Du sentence. Although few expected her to hand down the maximum 16-year sentence, even fewer could have imagined that she would set the perpetrator of such an infamous killing free to return for all practical purposes to a normal life.
Karlin’s decision was so devoid of rationality and so free from contemplation that it constitutes a prima facie case of judicial incompetence. The sentence cannot even stand up to the standards that the judge set for herself in her statement to the court. The words of that irony-laden statement, in which the judge said that the prosecutor’s call for a maximum sentence might “pour gasoline on a fire,” are so chillingly Orwellian that they point not to an inexperienced jurist, but rather to a person either viciously biased or frighteningly detached from all social reality.
“Nothing I can do, nothing the judicial system can do, nothing and no one will lessen the loss suffered by Latasha Harlins’ family and friends,” Karlin told the court the morning of the sentencing. “But the parties involved in this case and anyone truly interested in what caused this case can make sure that something positive comes out of this tragedy.”
One can only wonder--did Karlin have any idea that the converse could be true--that setting their daughter’s killer free could almost unbearably deepen the Harlins family’s loss? It would certainly be interesting to hear the judge explain how she thought her sentence could help ensure that “something positive come(s) out of this tragedy.”
Even accepting that Du probably poses no continuing threat to society, how did the extraordinary action of sparing her from a single day in prison accomplish the judge’s stated objectives of punishment, deterrence of others, restitution for the victim and uniformity in sentencing? The question of uniformity in sentencing leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouth of the African-American community. Last year, a Pacoima mailman was sentenced to six months in jail for shooting a dog. Just last week, a Pasadena judge sentenced a man to 30 days for kicking another dog.
Meanwhile, some have questioned whether Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, is the right person to spearhead the community’s response. They wonder whether Bakewell’s plan to picket Karlin’ home and otherwise make her life “uncomfortable” will be counterproductive, provoking so much sympathy for the judge that she will be impossible to defeat in the 1992 election.
Such analyses are predicated on the assumption that on issues of life and death, such as the killing of Latasha Harlins, demanding redress and respect or seeking political accommodation represent equally viable alternatives for the African-American community. It was the same message we heard during the Rodney King/Daryl Gates/Los Angeles police furor: “Don’t rock the boat. Let the system handle it. Too much pressure will generate a backlash of sympathy for the chief.”
Another frightening assumption underlies these calls for quiescence: that even in circumstances as outrageous as the King beating and the Du sentencing, other ethnic groups are so incapable of placing themselves in either the individual or collective shoes of the African-American community that they cannot understand why outrages and strong action are required. If this is truly the extent of the isolation in which the African-American community finds itself, then ultimately a path of political accommodation makes no sense.
For the African-American community, the shooting of Latasha Harlins and the freeing of her killer offer a chilling harbinger of life in Los Angeles, the shrine of economic growth, with no economic base. By now it should be clear that neither the government nor the banks nor any other community is going to provide the funds for the economic development of South-Central Los Angeles. And it is time to stop blaming or relying on the Korean community, which is only taking advantage of the opportunities before it. Several of our leaders have periodically advanced the notion that Los Angeles’ 454,289 African-Americans could establish their own capital base if each was willing to contribute even $1 to such an effort. Wall Street calls it “venture capital.” Crenshaw Boulevard should call it economic survival.
After the picketing stops, the task for the leadership must be to ask every black Angeleno if black life and the community’s self-respect is worth $1 per person. Until it is, every one of us runs the risk of finding ourself in Soon Ja Du’s shop or Joyce Karlin’s courtroom--where a black life is worth less than $1.79.