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Had It Been Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson Would Have Gone Ape-Shit

It seems close to impossible to get a policeman, any policemen, convicted of unlawfully shooting an African-American. For that matter, it’s pretty damn hard to get an overzealous, gun-toting private citizen convicted of the same crime. We need only consider George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

So in those relatively rare instances where the legal system plods along as intended, and justice finally does seem to “prevail,” and a violent person is convicted by a jury of unlawfully taking the life of a young African-American, it hurts all the more when the perpetrator—the person found guilty by a jury of his or her peers—walks away without being punished.

It hurts all the more. In March of 1991, a black teenage girl, 15-year old Latasha Harlins, was shot and killed by the owner of a convenience store in Los Angeles. The owner of the store, a 51-year old Korean woman named Soon Ja Du, claimed that Latasha had placed a bottle of orange juice in her backpack and was going to leave the store without paying.

But eyewitnesses, along with physical evidence obtained at the scene, indicated otherwise. While the girl had, in fact, placed the orange juice bottle in her bag, she had money clutched in her hand, ready to pay, when she was accosted by the store owner, who had aggressively grabbed the girl’s backpack.

Clearly, this teenage girl fully intended to pay for the beverage. However, after being “assaulted” by the woman, Latasha reflexively responded in a manner that made sense. She struck back, in effect, defending herself. And then, in a show of defiance, she angrily threw the orange juice on the counter and proceeded to walk out of the store.

At this point, the proprietor removed a handgun from behind the counter, followed Latasha a few steps, and shot her point blank in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Although she tried to claim that, “fearing for her life,” she had shot Latasha in self-defense, the testimony of two witnesses, plus footage from the store’s security camera, told a different story. In truth, she sneaked up on Latasha and “executed” her.

The jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of “voluntary manslaughter,” a crime that carries a maximum sentence in California of 16 years in prison. But instead of jail time, the judge, one Joyce Karlin, sentenced Ja Du to five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a fine of $500.

If I’m not mistaken, in 1991, $500 was also the maximum fine you could be assessed for littering. So, very broadly speaking, it could be said that blowing the head off a black teenager, and illegally discarding your sandwich wrapper, were now rendered equal in the eyes of the Law.

In the matter of Latasha Harlins, with the State vs. Soon Ja Du, the jury had performed its duty admirably. The jury had spoken. And Judge Karlin went and made a mockery of it. Two centuries earlier, Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to happen to Sally Hemings, the slave woman he was bedding. Even back when slavery was still legal, there was such a thing as “justice.”

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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