When Denise Harlins thinks back to the point when her life veered onto a course she never imagined, she remembers sitting in a Los Angeles courtroom at a bail hearing for Soon Ja Du.
The Korean-born grocer had shot to death Harlins' 15-year-old niece, Latasha, on March 16, 1991, in South Los Angeles, in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. At the hearing, Harlins sat with her family and a few friends as Du pleaded not guilty to murder. Also present were more than 150 Korean-Americans, who applauded when the judge agreed to release Du on $250,000 bail.
"It was like a knife going through my heart. It was like they were celebrating her for killing Latasha," Harlins says now. "That's when it went through my head to do something, though I didn't know what."
The "something" became the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee, formation of the Latasha Harlins Foundation and activities that nearly two years later still dominate the 29-year-old secretary's life.
On Thursday, Harlins and Gina Rae, a community activist who helped form the committee, planned a memorial ceremony for Latasha, who would have been 17 this New Year's Day. "We don't want people to ever forget," Rae said.
The case, which ended in Du's conviction for voluntary manslaughter and then Judge Joyce A. Karlin's controversial sentence of five years probation, is not likely to be forgotten. It became a symbol of the fractured relations between African-Americans and Korean-Americans in Los Angeles. When the riots started April 29 after the not guilty verdicts in the police beating of Rodney G. King, Latasha's name was invoked as some businesses were burned.
The case was a precursor to more vocal charges of a double standard of justice raised later in the King beating trial and the current Reginald O. Denny beating case, according to Joe Hicks, executive director of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The outcome of Latasha's case, he said, "set in people's minds the concept that there was a different standard of justice in different communities, based on either race or class."
The Latasha Harlins Justice Committee has sought to recall Karlin and to see federal civil rights charges brought against Du, and is seeking changes in state probation laws. Neither Du nor Karlin could be reached for comment.
Though other cases and events now get more public attention, Rae and Denise Harlins pursue their cause, which Rae says is "justice in the death of an innocent child." Committee numbers have dwindled, from a high of hundreds after the verdict to about 10, but Harlins says, "I'll never quit."
The pair have lobbied public officials, staged protests and marched in parades. On Thursday they were outside the Empire Liquor Market, which has been closed since the killing. Their candlelight vigil, at dusk today near 91st and Figueroa streets, will be staged there. Along with community members, Latasha's 10-year-old sister, Christina Acoff, and brother, Vester Acoff, 12, they swept up garbage and broken glass piled up outside the graffiti-scarred building.
The Du family still owns the property. But Rae and Harlins hope to raise enough money to buy it and set up a community center in Latasha's name. It would provide long-term help to victims of violent crime, as well as job training for local youths.
The 54-year-old Rae never knew Latasha. She had been living in Hawaii, but came to Los Angeles in the spring of 1991 for the birth of a grandson. Articulate and dramatic, she sports five-inch long fingernails that attract attention wherever she goes. A passionate advocate of African-American culture, she also uses an African name, Queen Malkah. Because Rae previously worked on several civil rights issues involving the black community, a friend asked her to meet the Harlins family. She did, and never returned to Hawaii.
Denise Harlins, in contrast, is quiet and low key. "My life was completely different before," she said. "I wasn't politically involved. I didn't know how to even write a press release." Strangers before, the two are now like mother and daughter.
Shortly before Latasha was killed, Denise Harlins had quit her job with the state Department of Insurance to go back to college and study business management. She hoped to start her own business. To save money, she moved in with her mother, Ruth, who was raising Latasha, Christina and Vester. The children's mother was dead, killed at a club in 1985. When the police arrived at the family's door to say Latasha had been killed, Harlins' life was put on hold, she said.
Latasha "was always energetic, positive, full of energy," Harlins said of the Westchester High School freshman who dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Committee handouts now include a prose poem that the family found among Latasha's effects after her death. It reads in part: "I have a lot of talent and I know that whenever I set my mind on something I am going to accomplish it."
One of the hardest tasks she faced, Harlins said, is "having to defend Latasha's character."
After the killing, captured on the market's videotape, police said that Latasha had not been trying to steal the orange juice. But people assumed she was a thief. Harlins said she also confronted suggestions that Latasha, who struck Du four times during their confrontation, was a violent street kid. "She wasn't involved in any type of (illegal) activity. They always tried to make Latasha the criminal, not Du."
The family has not recovered from the death, she added. Christina, a fifth-grader, looked through the market door with a friend and pointed quietly, saying, "She was killed right over there."
Despite committee efforts, Karlin--reassigned to Juvenile Court after the sentencing--was reelected by voters last June. Although the group successfully lobbied for Department of Justice consideration of federal civil rights charges against Du, officials have not announced any decision.
Rae and Harlins seek changes in state law to provide information to the families of crime victims about criminals placed on probation. Now, state authorities notify victims' families when a prisoner is up for parole, for example, but information about probationers is confidential.
Rae and Harlins admit they are tired of the fight. "I wish I could move on, to the life I really want," Harlins said. "But I just can't."