From law enforcement officials to supermarket tabloid editors, a stunned America grappled yesterday with the news that a man in Los Angeles had beaten a murder charge with a two-year-old burrito.

As legal historians will soon record, the "Burrito Ploy" began, like so many brilliant discoveries, with a sleepless night, as Edward Vasquez awaited the verdict on charges that he had murdered a security guard in 1988.

Sometime in those lonely hours, he had a revelation -- his jacket, seized as evidence, had felt strange when he tried it on for the jury. It had felt "like there was something heavy in the right pocket," he told his lawyer.

Vasquez's lawyer moved swiftly to demand the jury be brought back.

Then he made his landmark move.

Vasquez had already admitted being near the shooting, but had testified he was merely buying a burrito (a flour tortilla, usually filled with meat, beans, onions, cheese and tomatoes and often topped with guacamole and sour cream) when the shots were fired.

"He didn't shoot the security guard," the lawyer announced in a moment most lawyers only dream of, flourishing a foil-wrapped object. "And this proves it!"

The burrito!

Acquittal followed.

As word of the "burrito defense" flashed across the country, questions buzzed through concerned legal and culinary circles:

What did the vendor use for sauce on the burrito, Oil of Olay?

If the burrito was "well preserved" after two years in the evidence locker of the Los Angeles Police Department, what would it have done to Vasquez's stomach?

Or to his mind -- would eating it have made him act like Dan White, the man who mounted the "Twinkie" defense in his trial for shooting San Francisco politician Harvey Milk?

If the cops had the jacket that long and didn't find a burrito in the pocket, is there some technology here that the Stealth bomber manufacturers should have known about?

What else did the cops miss in those pockets: Jimmy Hoffa? The Holy Grail? The Erol's videotape you've been meaning to take back for three weeks now?

Don't burritos give off teeny signs of age after a while? Did the cops in that part of the station have some kind of sinus condition, or what? Did they lend it to Black Flag as a test range for roach motels?

Meanwhile, the media world braced for headlines soon to appear on supermarket tabloids: OUTER SPACE BURRITO SAVES MAN FROM CHAIR Followed by: JUROR REVEALS: MIRACLE BURRITO CURED MY CANCER! And: ELVIS SHOCKER! BURRITO VENDOR WAS REALLY KING

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials across the nation swapped grim rumors:

Savings and loan biggies were ransacking briefcases for remains of "Surf 'n' Turf" and "Reef 'n' Beef" to prove they were out to lunch when the $500 billion disappeared, although a judge in New York refused to hear an appeal by Leona Helmsley based on a five-year-old chocolate pillow mint.

Prosecutors in Buffalo and Cleveland were said to be stymied by the "kielbasa defense," while burglars in Washington were carrying not only bricks to smash windows but aged half-smokes to show the cops.

A charge of pumping "unleaded supreme" and paying merely for "unleaded plus" at a Georgia gas station was thrown out when the defendant held aloft a seven-month-old praline to prove he was at the Stuckey's next door.

A little old lady in Minneapolis pulled some lutefisk from her purse to demonstrate that she was buying the popular Scandinavian fish snack at the time police said she was guilty of carrying 11 items into the eight-items-or-less line at a supermarket.

Courtroom artists sketched ancient baked beans in Boston. In Philadelphia, judge and jurors wore gas masks when a moldy cheese steak was dumped on the evidence table, and a decrepit muffaletta sandwich cleared a whole courthouse in New Orleans.

Former president Nixon was said to be preparing a statement that the legendary 18-minute gap on the Watergate tapes might have something to do with a mummified "tuna on white" found in a purse that once belonged to secretary Rose Mary Woods.

Finally, around the world, the Storting, Norway's legislature, moved immediately to outlaw any defense based on "fragrant herring," and China mulled the legality of any defense "dealing with dishes from either Column A or Column B."