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Prosecutor Says Korean Shopkeeper Didn’t Act in Self Defense

October 8, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jurors in the racially charged murder trial of a Korean shopkeeper were asked Monday to decide whether the woman shot a black teen-ager in self defense.

The case of Soon Ja Du went to the jury after a prosecutor urged a second- degree murder conviction and a defense attorney insisted Mrs. Du is innocent.

Deputy District Attorney Roxane Carvajal said a verdict of justifiable homicide would send a message that ″any time we have a barroom brawl, anyone can take out a gun and shoot anybody.″

Mrs. Du, 51, is charged with killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at the Du family’s Empire Liquor Market and grocery store. Mrs. Du had accused the girl of trying to shoplift a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, and said the girl beat her with her fists.

The March 16 killing and other shootings inflamed tensions between black residents and Korean merchants in economically depressed south-central Los Angeles.

After the shooting, the Du family’s store was picketed, vandalized and set afire. Since then, two Korean merchants and two blacks have been killed in south-central markets, some of which have been boycotted.

Defense attorney Richard Leonard insisted that Mrs. Du ″had every right to pull out that gun and defend herself.″

Leonard told jurors that if they don’t believe that, the only crime they can convict on is involuntary manslaughter. He said there is insufficient evidence of malice or intent to kill.

Leonard showed the jury photos of Miss Harlins’ scarred knuckles and said, ″She threw a punch like somebody who had fought before. And every time Mrs. Du came up, she whacked her again.″

Jurors were to begin deliberations Tuesday.

Ms. Carvajal played for jurors a videotape recorded by a security camera that shows Ms. Harlins punching Mrs. Du repeatedly before the shopkeeper reaches under the counter for a gun.

The tape was shown in slow motion and in close-up enhancement, but its quality was too poor to give an exact view of how the killing occurred. Mrs. Du is seen fumbling with the gun as Miss Harlins turns away, as if to leave. Miss Harlins suddenly falls dead.

The tape also doesn’t clarify whether Miss Harlins was trying to pay for the juice when Mrs. Du grabbed her by the sweater and accused her of shoplifting.

Before closing arguments, both sides stipulated that when Miss Harlins’ body was examined, she had two dollar bills clutched in her hand.

Mrs. Du testified tearfully last week that she never meant to kill the girl but feared she was about to die when the girl punched her with a fist ″like iron.″

She said she could not remember firing the gun.

Following Mrs. Du’s testimony, Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin threw out a charge of first-degree murder and made second-degree murder the maximum charge. She said it was clear the defendant did not premeditate the killing. The maximum sentence for second-degree murder is 15 years to life in prison.

On Monday, Karlin instructed jurors in the law of second-degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. To convict on second-degree murder, she said, the jury must find the killing was done ″with malice aforethought.″ Without malice, but with intent to kill, the crime would be voluntary manslaughter, and without intent, a killing committed in the sudden heat of passion is involuntary manslaughter, she said.

Ms. Carvajal urged jurors to reject the thought that the shooting was accidental.

″Ladies and gentlemen,″ she said, ″when you put your finger on the trigger it is not an accident that the gun goes off.″

She told jurors to consider what a reasonable person would do in Mrs. Du’s position.

″What you have to ask yourself is would a reasonable person get so mad and angry and be so blinded by these feelings that they would take a gun and shoot an unarmed 15-year-old girl?″ she said.