Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old African- American girl who was brutally shot dead on March 16, 1991, by a 51-year-old Korean woman, Soon Ja Du in Vermont Vista, Los Angeles.
Latasha Harlins was born on Thursday, January 1, 1976 (age 15 years; at the time of death) in East St. Louis, Illinois, United States. In 1981, her family moved from Illinois to South Central Los Angeles. Latasha was a student of Westchester High School, Los Angeles.
Family & Ethnicity
Latasha Harlins had an African-American origin. Los Angeles Times
Parents & Siblings
Latasha Harlins’ father, Sylvester Vester Acoff Sr., worked in a steel foundry, and her mother, Crystal Harlins worked as a waitress in a local tavern in South Central Los Angeles. She had two younger siblings; a brother, Vester Acoff Jr., and a sister Christina. Her father, Acoff Sr. was abusive towards her mother, Crystal Harlins, and he used to attack her in front of Latasha and her younger siblings. Eventually, their marriage ended in the year 1983. On November 27, 1985, Latasha’s mother Crystal Harlins, was shot dead outside a Los Angeles nightclub. Thereafter, Latasha was raised by her maternal grandmother, Ruth Harlins.
On the morning of Saturday, March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins was fatally shot dead by a Korean woman, Soon Ja Du, in the Empire Liquor store, in Vermont Vista, Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times
Reportedly, the owner of the Empire Liquor Store, Du claimed that she observed Harlins was putting an orange juice bottle in her backpack and asked Harlins if she intended to pay for it, to which Harlins replied, “What orange juice?.” Therefore, Du grabbed Harlins by her sweater, accused her of stealing, and snatched her backpack. Harlins reciprocated to this by punching Du twice and knocking Du down to the ground. Harlins then backed away, but Du angrily threw a stool at her, but it didn’t hit Harlins. Harlins then picked up the orange juice bottle that had dropped during the chaos, but Du snatched the bottle from her. Harlins then turned around and tried to leave, but Du retrieved a revolver from under the cash-counter and shot Harlins at the back of her head. The two eye-witnesses of the event contradicted Du’s claims and stated that Du never asked Harlins’ intentions to pay for the orange juice, instead, she called her a “bitch.” After viewing the videotape of the store security camera, the police concluded that Harlins intended to pay for the beverage as she held money in her hand.
The Trial & Sentence of Soon Ja Du
Soon Ja Du testified on her own behalf, and she claimed that she shot Harlins in self-defence as she believed that her life was in danger. Du’s testimony was contradicted by the two eye-witnesses and the video which was revived from the store security camera. The video exclusively showed that Du shot Harlins when she attempted to leave the store empty-handed. On November 15, 1991, the jury found Du guilty and delivered the verdict stating that Du fired the gun voluntarily.
As Du was guilty of manslaughter, the jury recommended the maximum prison sentence for the crime, which was 16 years. However, Joyce Karlin, the trial judge, did not approve the jury’s recommendation and instead sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. The court stated that the crime was committed under extreme provocation, and that Du’s capacity to act rationally in the situation was undermined by her experience with past robberies. In July 1992, post the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Harlins family was awarded $300,000 in the settlement.
In Popular Media
Tupac Shakur, a hip-hop artist dedicated the song, Keep Ya Head Up to Latasha Harlins. Thereafter, he made frequent mentions of Harlins in his songs, like Something 2 Die 4, Thugz Mansion, I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto, etc. Sapphire, an American author, wrote the poem ‘Strange Juice’ in her book American Dream, referring to the killing of Latasha Harlins. In 2020, Netflix released a documentary titled ‘A Love Song for Latasha,’ celebrating the life of Latasha Harlins.
- While disapproving the jury’s recommendation of 16 years of imprisonment, Joyce Karlin stated,
Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately? Absolutely. But was that reaction understandable? I think that it was.” Karlin added, “this is not a time for revenge…and no matter what sentence this court imposes Mrs. Du will be punished every day for the rest of her life.”
- Harlins was killed 13 days after Rodney King, an American man who was a victim of police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department. Both of these deaths fueled the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The decision of sentencing Du to just five years of probation caused outrage in Los Angeles and a large number of Korean-owned businesses were attacked.
- The Los Angeles Police Department ballistics report also stated that the handgun used by Du was altered in such a way that it required much less pressure on the trigger to fire than an ordinary handgun.
- During the 1992 riots, Du’s store was looted and burned down, and it never reopened. The property later became a market under different ownership.
- Latasha Harlins was buried next to her mother in Paradise Memorial Park, Santa Fe Springs, California.