The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots

Brenda Stevenson (Author)


Helicopters patrolled low over the city, filming blocks of burning cars and buildings, mobs breaking into storefronts, and the vicious beating of truck driver Reginald Denny. For a week in April 1992, Los Angeles transformed into a cityscape of rage, purportedly due to the exoneration of four policemen who had beaten Rodney King. It should be no surprise that such intense anger erupted from something deeper than a single incident.

In The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins, Brenda Stevenson tells the dramatic story of an earlier trial, a turning point on the road to the 1992 riot. On March 16, 1991, fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African American who lived locally, entered the Empire Liquor Market at 9172 South Figueroa Street in South Central Los Angeles. Behind the counter was a Korean woman named Soon Ja Du. Latasha walked to the refrigerator cases in the back, took a bottle of orange juice, put it in her backpack, and approached the cash register with two dollar bills in her hand-the price of the juice. Moments later she was face-down on the floor with a bullet hole in the back of her head, shot dead by Du. Joyce Karlin, a Jewish Superior Court judge appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, presided over the resulting manslaughter trial. A jury convicted Du, but Karlin sentenced her only to probation, community service, and a $500 fine. The author meticulously reconstructs these events and their aftermath, showing how they set the stage for the explosion in 1992.

An accomplished historian at UCLA, Stevenson explores the lives of each of these three women-Harlins, Du, and Karlin-and their very different worlds in rich detail. Through the three women, she not only reveals the human reality and social repercussions of this triangular collision, she also provides a deep history of immigration, ethnicity, and gender in modern America. Massively researched, deftly written, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins will reshape our understanding of race, ethnicity, gender, and-above all-justice in modern America.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publish Date
September 01, 2015
6.1 X 1.4 X 9.2 inches | 1.27 pounds

Earn by promoting books

Earn money by sharing your favorite books through our Affiliate program.

Become an affiliate

About the Author

Brenda Stevenson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke and Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, selected as an Outstanding Book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.


"Contested Murder makes it clear the tragedy inside the Empire Market and the violence that followed in South L.A. and Koreatown should be remembered by all Angelenos as a turning point in their history."--Los Angeles Times

"A child's murder, a judicial outrage, and a city on fire: Brenda Stevenson unlocks the secret history of the 1992 Los Angeles riots in this meticulously fair but disturbing account of the Latasha Harlins case."--Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz

"As an element of the Los Angeles Riots, the shooting of Latasha Harlins finally gets the attention it deserves from renowned historian Brenda Stevenson. Stevenson gives us fascinating and full portraits of each of the three women involved: the teenage African-American victim, the Korean immigrant shooter, and the Jewish American judge. She traces all three lives deep into the past and forward to that fateful moment in the South Central convenience store in March 1991. A gripping read and a revealing perspective on the varied and intersecting lives of American women at century's end."--Ellen Carol DuBois, author of Through Women's Eyes: An American History

"Not since J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground has a book so sympathetically and powerfully traced personal and group histories to recover the roots of an American tragedy. To Lukas's elucidation of race, ethnicity, religion, and class, Stevenson's excavation of the lives of three women-the decedent, the defendant, and the judge-adds a gendered understanding that explains anew the eruption of violence in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 and the traumas of inequality in the modern United States."--Stephen Aron, Chair, Autry Institute for the Study of the American West

"The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins is a deeply moving account of the shooting death of a Black female teenager at the hands of a Korean female shopkeeper. With an elegant and elegiac tone, Stevenson charts the biographies of those involved in the outcome of the case-including the presiding Jewish female judge. Stevenson also plumbs the cultural and historical contexts of race, class, and gender in the lives of the women and men who were brought together by the caprice of history as well as its seemingly inevitable designations. She has encompassed all of our histories in an epic manner and written about an episode in our national history to which we should all pay attention."--Lois W. Banner, University of Southern California