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25 years later, a vigil will honor a black teen killed over a bottle of orange juice

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Pastor Issac Reed prays with relatives of Latasha Harlins and community members who gathered on the 25th anniversary of the teenager’s shooting death. The vigil was held outside the former store where Korean-born shopkeeper Soon Ja Du shot Latasha,

Two weeks after the beating of Rodney King, a Korean-born shopkeeper shot a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins in the back of her head in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.

Unlike King, the teen did not live to tell about it.

The two racially charged incidents sparked outrage in Los Angeles that eventually bubbled over into the 1992 L.A. riots after the LAPD officers in King’s beating were acquitted by a jury. As rioters torched buildings in South L.A., some invoked the teenager’s name.

The Homicide Report: A story for every victim >>

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The Latasha Harlins case highlighted the tension between African Americans and Korean Americans, particularly business owners, during a much more violent era in L.A.'s history.

Twenty-five years ago, on March 16, 1991, Latasha walked to Empire Liquor Market and Deli on 91st and Figueroa streets, put a bottle of orange juice in her knapsack, then went to the counter. Soon Ja Du, the store owner, accused the girl of trying to steal the juice. Witnesses said that Latasha told Du she intended to pay and revealed two dollar bills in her hand; police later concluded that there was “no attempt at shoplifting” by Latasha.

But Du grabbed the teen’s sweater and as the two struggled, Latasha broke free after striking Du in the face, knocking her down. Latasha tossed the juice on the counter and walked to the door. Du picked up a .38-caliber handgun and fired a shot into the back of Latasha’s head, killing her.

The deadly confrontation was captured by fuzzy security footage.

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A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. The judge gave her probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.

Latasha’s family launched a years-long battle to overturn the sentence and recall the judge. Both efforts were unsuccessful.

In the generation since the girls’s death, she has been memorialized in songs by rappers Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube and most recently New York-based singer Gabriel Kahane. On Wednesday, members of Latasha’s family and community activists are planning a candlelight vigil to honor the slain teen, according to her aunt Denise Harlins.

She said she wants to make sure that everybody remembers her niece’s name.

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angel.jennings@latimes.com

Twitter: @angeljennings

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