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The Girl with the Wonderful Smile

The Decedent
Te autopsy report was devastatingly clear: Te decedent,
Latasha Harlins, died as a result of having sustained a gunshot
wound . . . to the back of the head . . . . Te entry wound was :
inches below the top of the head . . . . Te exit wound . . . is :
inch from the mid line of the back of the head.

Latasha Harlins was :, years old when Soon Ja Du shot her.
She died shortly thereafer, face down on the foor of her local
convenience store, the Empire Liquor Market located at :,:
South Figueroa Street in South Central Los Angeles. On that
day, Latasha became part of a gruesome national statistic: :,.,
of homicide victims are female. Still, Latashas murder was
unusualonly about :o African American girls her age, out of
every :oo,ooo, were killed that year.

Te police investigators found two one-dollar bills crum-
pled in Latashas hand. Te elastic band of the UCLA Bruins cap
she wore that morning broke when the bullet passed through it.
Paramedics ripped open the front of her multicolored blouse,
searching for a heart beat. Blood seeping from her head stained
the back of her shirt and jacket, eventually reaching her blue
pants. Blouse, pants, capseemingly ordinary, casual clothing
for a teenaged girl to wear on a Saturday morning. But on that
dayMarch :o, ::the ordinary became extraordinary.
Store owner Soon Ja Du testifed that her son Joseph had told
The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins
her about people who wore clothes like Latashas: they were, according
to him, gang members and dangerous. Latashas clothes, her age, and the
color of her skin made her, in Dus estimation, an other who was not
to be trusted, but who was to be feared. Dus perception of Harlins as a
racial and/or ethnic stranger as it were, also resonates with national
homicide statistics. Tree out of ten homicides are interracial when the
victim is a stranger. Most stranger homicides also involve a gun.

Latasha Lavon Harlins was born on January :, :,o, at the Christian
Welfare Hospital in East St. Louis, Illinois, the frst daughter of :o-year-
old Crystal Harlins. Te Harlins family, led by Crystals mother Ruth,
had been in East St. Louis since the late :os. Tey were an extended
family, with at least three, sometimes four, generations living together.
Latasha, her mother, her two younger siblings named Vester, Jr. and
along with Sylvester Acof, father of Latashas siblings, joined
Ruth Harlins in Los Angeles in :8:.
Denise and Shinese, Latashas
maternal aunt and frst cousin moved from Atlanta to join the family in
:8,. Richard Brown (a.k.a. Harlins), her maternal uncle, also lived in
the home.
Tis is the story of Latasha Harlins. It explores her tragic life in Los
Angeles, her family, her community, and the forceshistorical, polit-
ical, economic, cultural, legal, and criminalwhich shaped who she
was, how she behaved, what she thought, and what happened to her on
that morning in the late winter of :: that ended her life.
Te homicide detectives on the scene seized Latashas backpack,
along with its contentsa jar of cream, a pair of female underpants, a
toothbrush, some other toiletry items, and a few other articlesas evi-
dence. Te police took photos of her dead body and then walked from
house to house in the working-class neighborhood near the site of the
shooting, trying to get a positive identifcation of the murdered youth.
Neighbors kept pointing them toward one apartment building, then to
one apartment in particular leased by Ruth Harlins. Denise Harlins,
Ruths daughter, opened the door and spoke to the policemen. As his
description of what happened to Latasha wafed backward and flled the
room with unexpected dread, grandmother Ruth collapsed. Shinese
went screaming through their home. Te dead girl was not only her
cousin, but also her best friend and roommate; Latasha had borrowed
Shineses lime-green backpack with a clock on the front when she lef
Tasha ,
home the previous evening. Soon Ja Du later testifed that she was cer-
tain Latasha had a weapon in that clock-faced backpack. She was certain
Latasha had a weapon that she was going to use to kill her. Te police
recovered no such weapon.

Fifeen is a dim cult age for most girls, particularly for one growing
up without her mother or father and coming of age in South Central in
the early :os. Certainly Latasha, or Tasha as friends and family called
her, had a family that loved her. Her grandmother Ruth had risked a lot
to take in Latasha and her two siblings when their mother Crystal was
killed and their father disappeared. Her aunt Denise also was in the
home with her. Latasha had the support, comradeship, and afection of
her cousin Shinese and the rest of the Harlins clan in Los Angeles as
well. Still, her short life had been hard and painful. Te toll it took
showedLatasha seemed something of a loner and ofen was very quiet.
But no one expected her untimely death or the alleged reasons Du gave
for it. Te Harlins family has never been able to understand why Du
thought Latasha had a weapon in her backpack with which she intended
to kill the shopkeeper.
Tasha was just very quiet and very shy. She didnt hang with many
people. And she was hard, you could tell. You didnt mess with her. She
was like in her own world, a friend from her middle school recalled.
JonSandy Campbell also remembered that she, Tasha, and two other
girls, Tunisia and Sandra, would spend their lunch time at Bret Harte
Preparatory Middle School talking about clothes, boys, and especially
music. She was a good dancer. Her favorite group was BBD [Bell Biv
Devoe] . . . . We were all kind of outsiders, you know. I came to the school
new that year so I didnt know anyone; but she had been there. We got
together because we were both alone and very quiet.
JonSandy realized
that Latasha too was an outsider, but she never really understood why.
She had no idea that Latashas mother had been killed a few years earlier,
and that she had never emotionally recovered from the loss.
Tasha never talked about her family or any of her problems
none of that. We were just silly girls, sitting around talking
about music, gossiping about people at the school, you know
how girls talk. She didnt think she was pretty, but I thought she
was cute. She was dark complexioned. She always wore her hair
o The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins
the same waybangs in the front, two braids up the side, bangs
in the back. She would always look up at you through her bangs.
I used to tell her that I liked her cut [slanted] eyes. She wore the
same kind of clothes every dayblue dickies, a white T-shirt
and a black hoodie, always the black hoodie, and black LA Gear.
Tat was the thing. Gang bangers wore clothes like that, but she
wasnt in a gang. She just hung out with us.

Bret Harte, located on South Hoover between ,rd and th Streets,
just a couple of blocks from where Latasha died, included grades sixth
through eighth. Te school could not boast of high academic standards
or even moderate standardized test scores, but Latasha was successful
there as both a student and athlete, running track and placing on the
honor roll. She also had friends and success outside of middle school. At
the local Algin Sutton Recreational Center, Latasha was a member of the
drill team. She also worked as a junior camp counselor during the
summer of :o.
Afer their two years together at Bret Harte, JonSandy
and the other girls went to ninth grade at Washington Preparatory High.
Tasha went to Westchester High located in a middle-class enclave, some
distance from the Harlinss home. As an honor student at Bret Harte, she
had the choice to attend a high school other than the one closest to her
residence. Her family chose Westchester for Latasha and her cousin
Shinese because it was a better school academically and they hoped to
prepare the girls for college.
Te transition between middle school and high school for Latasha
could not have been an easy one; she lost most of her middle school
friends when she did not follow them to Washington Prep. Moreover,
Westchester was a much more rigorous academic environment than
Bret Harte. But perhaps more important, in terms of her outlook on life,
behavior, and relationship to her family and other members of her social
world, Latasha soon would be :,. Like many girls her age, Tasha was
struggling to fnd herself, to test lifes waters, to push against its personal
and institutional boundaries. A girl at heart, with the body of a young
woman and an edgy attitude, she was a complex blend of naivet and
maturity, strength and vulnerability, celebration, anger, and heartbreak
all wrapped up in a facade of quiet street savvy. Te heartbreak came
when her mother Crystal was shot and killed six years earlier. Te anger
Tasha ,
was part of the trauma of her loss, but probably began earlier when Lata-
sha lived in her parents home, a home menaced by domestic violence,
drug use, and petty criminality. It certainly was not a life anyone who
knew and loved Latasha, or anyone who was an ancestor, would have
wanted for her.
Migratory Paths: Leaving Violence and Injustice Behind?
Te Harlins familys migration from the Deep South to East St. Louis
and then on to Los Angeles was part of a migratory trend of African
Americans that extended generations back, at least to Latashas maternal
great-grandparents. Like the vast majority of blacks who lived in the
Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi, Ruth Harlinss ancestors had
been enslaved. Ruths great grandfather, Squire, also known as Sammy,
was born around :8o, in Mississippi, but according to census data,
Squires father, A. Hollands, had been born a slave in North Carolina in
:8,o. As a free farmer during the Reconstruction era, A. had married
Millie, who also was from Mississippi and whose slave father had been
born in South Carolina. During the antebellum period, Millie and A.s
fathers had, no doubt, like so many others, been sold or transferred
from the upper South where tobacco, cotton, and rice was the slave-
holders mainstay to the lower South where cotton was king. By :88o,
A. and Millie resided in Horn Lake, Mississippi, and worked as either
tenant famers or sharecroppers. Teir son Squire lived and worked with
them. When Squire later married Cora, the two had several children,
including Ruth Harlinss grandmother, Luella.

By ::o, the familys name had changed a few timesfrom Hollins
to Hollans to Hallins. Many enslaved blacks chose new surnames upon
emancipation in :8o,. Ruths familys name changed much later, prob-
ably as part of a typical evolution that refects both developing literacy
skills and accents. Luella, who was literate, and her family lived and
worked as farmers in Sunflower, Mississippi.
Fondly called Lula,
Luella later married Ed Thomas. She had a son before marrying
Emmett (a.k.a. Ernest). Emmett was Ruths father and Latashas great-
grandfather. Ten years later, Lula and Ed Tomas, still farmworkers,
moved to Bethany in Pickens County, Alabama, with their two sons Ed
and Ben as well as Emmett, who was then :8.