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Karlin Upheld in Sentencing of Grocer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appeals court on Tuesday upheld Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin’s controversial sentence of probation for a Korean-born grocer convicted of killing a black girl--a ruling that carries fresh political implications for both the embattled judge and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner.

In a 26-page opinion, the 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected claims by Reiner that the sentence given grocer Soon Ja Du was illegal and that Karlin had abused her discretion in issuing it.

The court also criticized the district attorney for “seizing upon” selected passages in Karlin’s decision to distort her meaning.

“The record does not support the district attorney’s interpretation of the judge’s remarks. . . ,” wrote Justice Herbert L. Ashby. “The district attorney cannot (prove his argument) by taking the court’s comments out of context and disregarding other language which does not support his position.”

Instead, the court found that Karlin, in her role as a trial judge, had wide discretion in determining whether probation was appropriate for Du. “It is the duty of the trial judge to exercise its discretion . . . regardless of whether the decision may be unpopular or controversial,” the decision said.

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Tuesday’s 3-0 ruling by Ashby and Justices Roger Boren and Margaret Grignon will no doubt reverberate through the June primary campaign, in which both Reiner and Karlin face stiff opposition. Within hours of the decision, Reiner issued a terse statement announcing that he still believes the Du sentence was “unjust” and has instructed his office to consider the possibility of an appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Karlin’s foes declared that the ruling had strengthened their resolve to recall her from office if she is not defeated June 2. And the Karlin campaign staff called a press conference, where her lawyer--joined by the attorney for Du--proclaimed that the judge had been “completely vindicated.”

Said Karlin attorney Donald Etra: “This was a marvelous victory both for Judge Karlin and for the L.A. Superior Court. It’s a marvelous victory for an independent judiciary and independent jurist.”

Karlin did not attend the press conference. Through her campaign manager, she issued a statement saying that she was “gratified” by the decision, adding: “I hope that we can now put this issue behind us and concentrate on healing within our community.”

The Du sentence, issued by Karlin in November, renewed ethnic discord in a city that had already been racked by the police beating of Rodney G. King and a series of racially charged incidents involving blacks and Korean-Americans, including the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Du.

The case revolved around a graphic videotape that showed Du, 51, and Latasha struggling over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice in the South-Central Los Angeles grocery store owned by Du. The tape shows Du grabbing Latasha’s sweater as the girl, who had put the juice in her backpack, approached the counter. Then Latasha is shown hitting Du in the face four times, knocking Du to the floor behind the counter.

Du then throws a stool at Latasha and gets a handgun from behind the counter. She is seen shooting the girl in the back of the head after Latasha puts down the juice and turns to walk away.

The jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter. Karlin gave the grocer a 10-year suspended prison sentence, five years probation and a $500 fine, and ordered her to perform community service.

In addition to sparking outrage in the black community, the sentence thrust Karlin into a political firestorm. Protesters picketed the Compton Courthouse, where Karlin worked, as well as the judge’s home in Manhattan Beach. Karlin--who had never handled a jury trial before the Du case--began receiving death threats, her associates have said.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Du’s lawyer went so far as to declare that Karlin was “the worst victim” in the case because of the toll on her personal and professional life. “The worst victim was not Mrs. Du, not Miss Harlins,” said attorney Charles Lloyd. “The worst victim was Judge Karlin.”

Members of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee had no immediate comment, but were expected to hold a news conference today.

Reacting to the sentence, Reiner attempted to bar the judge from handling any more criminal cases, and ultimately Karlin was reassigned to a seat on the Juvenile Dependency Court. In January, Reiner appealed the Du sentence.

The appeal argued that Karlin “defied the jury’s verdict” by issuing a sentence that was more appropriate for someone convicted of involuntary manslaughter than manslaughter. It also asserted that Karlin misinterpreted a state law that requires a prison sentence for someone who uses a gun in a crime.

However, that law offers an exception for “unusual cases where the interests of justice would best be served.” Karlin said she found the Du case unusual for several reasons. She cited Du’s lack of a criminal record, found that Du had fired under “great provocation” and said the crime might never have been committed had the gun not been altered to make it fire more easily.

Reiner argued that Karlin was not entitled to find the case unusual and that her ruling was therefore illegal, but the appeals court found Karlin’s reasons valid.

That left the court to consider whether Karlin had abused her discretion, as Reiner asserted. The court found that she had not.

Reiner said Tuesday’s decision was not surprising, and experts in appellate law agreed.

Attorney Dennis Fischer, who specializes in criminal appeals, said the ruling is “completely within the mainstream” of how appeals courts decide such cases. Of Reiner’s attempt to reverse the decision, Fischer said: “They were really swimming upstream on this case.”

Fischer also noted that because the ruling will not become final for 30 days, any appeal is likely to be decided after the June 2 election. “When Election Day happens,” Fischer said, “this decision will be the only decision on the books.”

Karlin’s backers in the legal community, many of whom claimed the outcry over her decision would intimidate other judges into buckling under public pressure, were elated.

“This is a victory for judicial independence,” said attorney Charles T. Mathews, who has organized a group of lawyers to support Karlin. “It tells every judge in the state of California that they are going to be allowed to use discretion.”

But Karlin’s foes were sorely disappointed. They have until July to gather the necessary 301,000 signatures to put their recall petition on the ballot; Compton Councilwoman Patricia Moore said 280,000 people have already signed.

“This (ruling) is the incentive that will cause citizens to finish it up and to send a message loud and clear to the justice system,” Moore said. “I’ve gotten over 50 calls just in the couple of hours since we heard about it. Since the system won’t do what’s right for us, we’re going to take charge and show the system who it’s supposed to be working for.”

Times staff writer Stephanie Chavez contributed to this story.


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