Killing of 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton by S.C. gas station owner recalls 1991 death of Latasha Harlins

Cyrus Belton,left, and Latasha Harlins
The killing of Cyrus Carmack-Belton by a South Carolina gas station owner sparked comparisons to the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, whose shooting death at the hands of a Korean convenience store owner inflamed racial tensions in L.A. (Family photo, Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The case of Cyrus Carmack-Belton, a 14-year-old who was allegedly shot and killed in Columbia, S.C., by a convenience store owner who suspected the young boy of shoplifting a bottle of water, immediately sparked comparisons to the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins.

The 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, whose shooting death at the hands of a Korean convenience store owner, prompted outrage and further inflamed racial tensions in L.A.

“He did not shoplift anything. We have no evidence that he stole anything whatsoever,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said during a news conference on Monday.

Rick Chow, the store owner, and his son, chased Carmack-Belton and shot him from behind with a pistol outside the store, authorities said.

Rick Chow
Rick Chow, a S.C. gas station owner, was charged with murder in the shooting of Cyrus Carmack-Belton. (Richland County Sheriffs Department)

“At some point, the son said ... that the victim had a gun and we did recover a gun that was close to his body. At that point, the father shot the young man in the back,” Lott said.

Chow, who is Asian American, was charged with murder for the May 28 shooting and was denied bond on Tuesday.

“Even if he [Cyrus] had shoplifted 4 bottles of water, which is what he initially took out of the cooler and then put them back, even if he had done that, that’s not something you shoot anybody over,” Lott explained.

Columbia, S.C. community members place empty water bottles outside of the gas station where  14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton encountered Rick Chow.
Columbia, S.C. community members place empty water bottles outside of the gas station where 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton encountered Rick Chow. (Richland County Sheriffs Department)

According to Richland County Coroner Nadia Rutherford, Carmack-Belton's cause of death has been ruled a homicide. “This incident is related to a fatal gunshot wound that he sustained that pierced his heart,” Rutherford told Yahoo News.

The young boy’s death has sparked outrage in the community. “What happened to him wasn’t an accident: It’s something that the Black community has experienced for generations — being racially profiled, then shot down in the street like a dog,” Todd Rutherford, the family’s attorney, said in a statement on Wednesday. (Todd Rutherford and Nadia Rutherford were previously married.)

Todd Rutherford is not the first to acknowledge that Black people have faced similar circumstances for decades, and observers say the case bears a striking resemblance to the 1991 fatal shooting of Harlins.

Harlins was 15 years old when she was shot and killed in a convenience store in L.A after the store owner, Soon Ja Du, suspected her of stealing a bottle of orange juice.

Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history at the University of Oxford and author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots,” says the similarities in the two cases, which occurred decades apart, are alarming.

“You have African American youth — he's [Cyrus] 14 years old, Latasha was only 15 years old. You have a person who's being accused wrongfully of shopkeeping, you have Asian American shopkeeper, you have the presumption of guilt from the shopkeeper of one of his customers and you have the aggressive behavior of the shopkeeper towards this African American teenager,” Stevenson said.

Both Harlins and Cyrus were also shot from behind. “While Latasha turned to walk away, Mrs. Du shot her in the back of the head, this young man fled the store, he was running away and he was actually chased and shot in his back.”

In a statement, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., says the fatal shooting of Carmack-Belton should have never happened. “The criminalization of Black men and boys and the historic trend of painting them as aggressors have time and again led to deadly and heartbreaking circumstances. Cyrus Carmack-Belton has since been declared innocent, but his supposed crime of shoplifting a bottle of water should not have cost him his life,” Clyburn said.

But Stevenson says she is not surprised because African American youth are not considered innocent. “Whether they're males or females, they are almost always thought of as being as dangerous as being criminal, and are treated that way, in our society,” Stevenson said.

Experts say justice is not guaranteed for Carmack-Belton, and cite the Harlins case as an example.

“The police in the Harlins case, they immediately arrested Soon Ja Du and she was charged with first-degree murder special circumstances, it was a death penalty case,” Stevenson said, adding that the judge in the case decided that Du should not receive any jail time, a decision that sparked the L.A. uprising of 1992.

But authorities are hopeful that Carmack-Belton will receive justice, “I would like the store owner to have his day in court so that we can hear everything that happened. And I want this family to get justice if there was truly something egregious done against [Cyrus Carmack-Belton],” Nadia Rutherford said.