A year ago he was running the largest cocaine operation in Washington's history and seemed to have it all: money, fast cars and lots of people he thought were his friends. Today he's behind bars, all alone and full of frightening self-delusion.

The convict, in faded prison-issue clothes and heavy gauge metal handcuffs, slowly walks out of an isolation cell in F unit, level four, maximum security lock-down of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill. -- the highest security prison in America. For two hours a day he is allowed to be in the common area -- known as "the range" -- of his hall and to mingle with other prisoners in his unit. Otherwise he is completely alone, unable to associate or eat with anyone. This man can use the phone once a month for 20 minutes. He can see the sky once every week for an hour when he is let into the prison yard, alone. He has no job -- the authorities won't give him one. He must stay in his cell, alone. On this bright day in early spring, he shuffles along a dark corridor of the prison, head down, trying to make conversation with uniformed guards who have little to say to him. One guard is in front of him, one behind him and another next to him. The guards halt, force the prisoner to turn right and then guide him into a tiny interview room. The gray metal door shuts hard behind him, and then there is a loud pop. The electric lock is engaged. There is no doorknob -- no getting out. He sheepishly sticks his young hands through a small opening in the metal door and waits. A guard unlocks the handcuffs. As he turns back, a chair is in his way and he stumbles, but there is nowhere to fall. His shoulder hits the wall. He squeezes his 6-foot, 190-pound body down into the chair.

Rayful Edmond III, convicted in December 1989 of running the largest cocaine operation in Washington's history, has agreed to talk.

Today's questioning lasts about three hours -- over the next few weeks he will agree to an additional 17 hours of interviews -- but as he answers questions about his past, his present and his future, it soon becomes clear that there are certain realities Edmond just cannot face.

Rayful, you are only 25. How do you deal with the idea of being in jail for the rest of your life?

"I'll be out couple years from now, probably two years."

The fact is Edmond has a life sentence without any chance for parole. He has filed an appeal, but convictions like his have rarely been overturned.

Did you deal drugs?

"Drugs is a problem, but just throwing people in jail, giving life sentences, it's unfair, because how do drugs get here, get to the District? Who is letting them get here? My main concern is that I shouldn't be here. They need to start from the top . . . I wasn't no big-time drug dealer. It just stuck like that, and the jury went for it . . . So they got the wrong man. It wasn't me who was doing all the things I supposedly was doing."

The fact is that after hearing testimony from more than a hundred witnesses, the jury found that Edmond was indeed a very big cocaine dealer.

In the middle of the first interview, Edmond pauses and then lets out a powerful sneeze. But he has no handkerchief, no tissue. He is offered a piece of paper from a reporter's note pad. Rayful Edmond blows his nose into the hard, sharp-edged writing paper. It's all he has.

Since 1986, when Edmond's cocaine business really took off, drug trafficking and drug-related murders in Washington have soared. Most of the drug dealers, drug users and victims of drug-related murders have been young black men, and the young black man who has come to personify the city's drug wars is Rayful Edmond III. His rise to prominence reveals a lot about the roots of Washington's ordeal. And his fall -- already jailed for life, Edmond still faces a murder charge -- reflects the fates of other, less notorious youths who have adopted the drug trade as a way of life.

These days Edmond may not have anything to blow his nose with, but he once lived the high life. He was a street-smart, cunning young man from a large, tight-knit family, a family that exposed him to gambling and drug dealing at a young age and in which he was "spoiled to death -- it was cool because I was the little baby brother -- I was king. I had anything I wanted." As he grew up, he developed a taste for good times, and the key to good times was money.

Money, as Edmond saw it, was what it took to have friends, fancy cars, stylish threads. With big bucks he was able to attract lots of women and well-known athletes. So what if people all around him were getting hooked on coke, if crack babies were being born to tortured lives? So what if narcotics dealers and buyers were spraying D.C.'s poor, black neighborhoods with automatic gunfire, killing one another -- and innocent bystanders -- over drugs? So what if it was destroying the lives of his own flesh and blood? Edmond didn't see himself as responsible. It was business, and business was great.

According to court documents and testimony, by 1986, when he was 22, Edmond was running a multimillion-dollar cocaine operation, and his lifestyle was in keeping with the job. He would jet to Las Vegas for a Sugar Ray Leonard fight, or he'd take a limo to Atlantic City for Mike Tyson's fights or to New York for shopping sprees at Trump Plaza and Gucci. In his time he sported a $45,000 diamond-covered Rolex on his wrist, a 3-carat diamond stud in his ear and a $15,000 diamond-covered cross around his neck. He was notorious for giving the kids in his M Street NE neighborhood $100 bills and for taking friends shopping at pricey boutiques in Georgetown. One day he and a friend walked into Hugo Boss, the clothing store, and spent $25,000. He once authorized a friend who was helping to furnish his house to buy $21,000 worth of furniture in a single month. In July 1987 Edmond handed a young friend $64,226 so the kid could buy Edmond a new Porsche. At one time or another, Edmond also owned a Jaguar convertible with gold-inlaid hubcaps and a white Range Rover four-wheel-drive vehicle.

During one six-week period in 1988, he traveled to Los Angeles

twice and ran up $5,358 in hotel bills, which he paid in cash, mostly in $20 bills, and on the night that Edmond and his associates were arrested, police found $12,000 in small bills lying "like trash" on the floor of one of his assistant's homes.

Edmond was a high roller who loved to gamble at craps tables and the numbers. During the prison interviews, he boasts of winning $100,000 in a single night. But Edmond's seemingly endless supply of money was coming not from gambling but from drug sales that sometimes totaled $2 million a week. At his zenith, law enforcement officials say, Edmond was controlling 20 percent of the coke coming into the city and when necessary protecting his share of the market with enforcers who have been tied to 30 murders -- among them the one with which Edmond is charged.

Edmond's cocaine dealership was based on Morton and Orleans places NE -- an area known as "the strip" -- and on busy nights his employees carried out as many as 30 transactions a minute. Members of Edmond's organization, which eventually numbered more than 150, occasionally brought as much as 1,700 pounds of Colombian cocaine a month into the city from Los Angeles. Then, from his grandmother's house at 407 M St. NE, Edmond directed his staff as they stored the coke and cash in apartments and houses, processed the cocaine for street sales and then packaged and allotted the shake (powdered cocaine) and crack (rock cocaine) to Edmond's street dealers. A woman who testified she worked for Edmond said she remembered selling $25,000 of cocaine on "the strip" in two hours.

Edmond was a renowned lady's man, and he often bestowed upon favored girlfriends oversize gold earrings that cost about a $100 a pair. "He'd come in here and buy dozens of them for all those girls," says Henry Beharry, who owns a jewelry store on 14th Street NW. Edmond has two children by two different women and is now engaged to be married to a third.

When he took a break from business, Edmond played basketball. He enjoyed the company of celebrity players such as Georgetown University's Alonzo Mourning and John Turner, a 6-foot-7 forward who played on the Georgetown team. According to Turner, coach John Thompson gave him a choice: Quit hanging out with Edmond or get off the team. Turner soon transferred to another college. He says Thompson ordered him to leave because he continued to associate with Edmond; a Georgetown spokesman says Turner left voluntarily. Whenever Edmond's city-league team played, the gym was filled with admiring young women and adoring kids. Edmond says he loves kids, and the impressionable poor children who lived near him seemed to love him, believed he was "The Man." They gawked at Edmond, his fabulous clothes, his glittery girls, his stylish cars and the famous basketball players who were his friends.

"Those kids will still tell you I'm a great guy," Edmond says. "They say, 'We love him. We wish he was still home' . . . Even now, if I call somebody and their kid answers, they all want to talk to me."

Sitting in a hot gray room at the federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Va., where he has been transferred temporarily in advance of his murder trial, Rayful Edmond points at the black tape recorder on the table.

When asked about his past, Edmond does not argue that he didn't run a criminal enterprise to sell drugs. His self-defense is two-pronged: First, he insists that he never got caught directly selling drugs and, second, that he is innocent of doing anything really wrong because adults are going to use drugs anyway and he wasn't dealing drugs to kids. To explain, he uses the tape recorder as a prop.

"Say like you want to buy another tape recorder," he begins. "So I say, 'Well, I know a guy who is selling tape recorders and he can give you a good price.' So I tell you about him. I ain't got nothing to do with it. I'm just telling you that I know the guy . . . Whatever y'all do is y'all's business."

And what if the guy with the tape recorders pays you for sending him a client?

"I'm not going to turn it down. I'm gonna accept all money, so I would accept it if he gave it to me, but whatever he done or how they got the tape recorder, I don't have to know anything about that . . . That don't make me the dealer. Don't make me have anything to do with it, or I'm the adviser or leader because I knew you . . . You just came to me and said, 'Man, who got tape recorders?' Or whatever, right? And I know that you gonna buy. If you don't buy it here, you gonna buy somewhere else . . .

"Things like that can happen, but don't misinterpret. I'm not saying drugs is good neither. And I'm not saying that it's bad. But it's a way of life and it's a part of our life. So it's something we have to deal with."

In May 1988, Edmond's elaborate, cash-rich, corporate-style drug operation started to cave in when four men were arrested in Los Angeles for offering an undercover officer $1 million for a cache of coke. Eventually the men began to talk, and the man they talked about was Rayful Edmond. Edmond was arrested in April 1989.

At his 56-day trial, which began in mid-September 1989, Edmond never testified. He was separated from the spectators by bulletproof glass. He had nothing to say about the fact that one prospective witness was shot before the trial, and that the home of another witness was firebombed during the proceedings. He sat quietly as his best friend, Royal S. Brooks Jr., testified that he stored as much as 90 kilograms of cocaine for Edmond and carried as much as $3 million of Edmond's money to arrange drug buys in L.A. He was quiet as his closest woman friend, Alta Rae Zanville, 48, acknowledged wearing a hidden microphone to collect evidence for the government. He remained quiet even as his two lawyers screamed and argued with each other. He never testified before the jury, which was, for security reasons, the first anonymous jury in Washington history. At one point, however, he did pass a note to a young woman working for a TV station that said he thought she was cute.

On its fifth day of deliberation, the jury found Edmond guilty. Three months later, in March, Edmond's mother, Constance "Bootsie" Perry, was convicted of drug conspiracy charges for her part in his operation. Ten other members of his family also have been found guilty of being party to Edmond's operation.

According to a conversation with Perry captured by Zanville's hidden mike, Edmond started out as a drug dealer-in-training by watching his parents. "If his daddy had never started him . . . " his mother said on the tape, and she went on to lament the pressure and responsibilities weighing on her son as the head of a massive drug operation. She said that as a youngster Edmond carried cash for her as she sold illegal pills, and that he would also be sent to pick up money from people buying drugs from his father. And then her son began to sell drugs too. "And like when he started out," Perry said, "it was just like, you know, like he was doing hand to hand . . . on the {street} corner, and they was selling and they was getting it from {the father} and then he . . . it just got too big. He just up and went out on his own."

Royal Brooks, Edmond's friend since Hamilton Junior High, testified that Edmond would brag that he could package cocaine quickly because "he was raised bagging stuff."

Even though Edmond told investigators he had been unemployed since age 20 and living off his parents, his mother testified at her own trial that he had gobs of money. But she said she felt it improper to ask Rayful or any other of her children who were working for him where they were getting large amounts of money: "There are some things you don't ask your children." She said she figured the money might have come from gambling and from her boyfriend. She didn't care, she said. Her boyfriend could have been "a gigolo -- as long as he took care of me, I didn't care what he did." Constance Perry also said she didn't know or care how a $4,000 whirlpool had been installed in her basement because she didn't have time to "go all around the house."

When he was on the street, Rayful Edmond lived according to the gospel of survival. His credo was: You do what you have to do to get by, and as long as you don't get caught, you're innocent. As the prison interviews progress, Rayful Edmond opens up and one begins to get more glimpses of the values that have shaped his world. He speaks slowly, softly, and he uses an odd, roundabout logic to answer questions about right and wrong.

Is stealing wrong, Rayful?

"All depends on where you steal it from. Why you stole it. What you did with it when you stole it. What was the need for stealing it . . . Like if I stole some money and I stole it so I could help some kid or something like that, then I would feel that was good."

How about shooting people, is that wrong?

"Like, say, for instance I had a gun, right, and somebody else had a gun. They were trying to shoot and I had one, I would shoot back. But I'm not gonna outright get no gun and go look to shoot nobody."

Are drugs bad?

"People be trying to survive. Like, say, for instance . . . you sell enough watches, then you got a lot of money, so somebody might try to rob you and then kill you. It ain't got to be about drugs, but the first thing they say is, 'Oh, let's check to see if he was into drugs. It's probably the drugs . . .'

"Everybody is trying to make it seem like drugs is all that bad. I'm saying it is bad when it gets to the kids that don't know what it is. It's bad. But when you of age, it's not bad. When you of a certain age, it's not bad . . . When you of age, you make your own judgment . . .

"People abuse anything in life. Like men have good women, and they abuse them. People have nice kids, and they abuse their kids. So that's just part of life and a way of life."

Would you agree that drugs are having a devastating impact on the black community?

"Drugs are all over now. That's just life. They are everywhere . . . I would say white people are more conservative and tend to handle it a little better than black people. Maybe their system might be a little stronger as far as with drugs. I will say that."

Did you hang around drug dealers?

"Yeah, I even did things to drug dealers . . . stole money from them before. {But} I really couldn't say because I wouldn't want that to get out. It could cost me my life or something like that. But I'm saying I'm not no bad person."

And what do you think of people who deal drugs?

"I don't try to judge people, and you know how life is now that people got families, and it's rough, man. People just look for ways to survive . . . And if {drug dealers} do wrong, their intention is not to hurt nobody, not to hurt kids . . . If somebody is dealing in drugs and they dealing with you and you a man just like them and you of age and stuff, what's the problem? People just say, 'Drugs are bad.' But it's so many people that are out there talking about 'drugs is bad' that are using drugs themself, but it's just not come out yet. It's being hidden. Just like Marion Barry. All this stuff he going around talking about drugs this, drugs that and all that. He just an example that there is more people out there just like Marion Barry."

So why do you think that people are out to get you?

"Through history . . . all the bad things happened to the good guys . . . So I'm a good guy, and just something bad happened to me, you know, and I'll overcome sooner or later."

Are you guilty of anything, Rayful?

"Not paying taxes, maybe that, maybe getting my taxes evaded. Three years' sentence and I be going home."

In his mind, Rayful Edmond is innocent.

"I think that me and my family and my friends all should have been found not guilty," Edmond told Elsa Walsh of The Washington Post immediately after his conviction. "All of us are loving, caring people who have kids. We're just like everyone else in Washington, D.C. We're ordinary people."

In his mind, the kid from M Street NE was out there doing what he had to do to survive, to keep himself "clean," to dress sharp and to pay for his three haircuts a week. He wanted to be popular with the boys, to show the ladies a flash of cash and to be a big man for the kids on M Street, so he would smile and throw $100 their way for some Air Jordans.

In his mind, all he was doing was paying bills, taking care of his family and friends and keeping up his reputation. After all, he points out, he was voted "Most Popular" at Dunbar High School, as well as "Mr. Sophomore," "Mr. Junior" and "Best Dressed."

Edmond liked the streets, he liked running around, people talking about him, women chasing him. He liked spending nights at high-stakes craps games. He was making fast money as a young man, and, anyway, he was never going to sit through four years of anybody's college. He says he enrolled at UDC but, after attending classes for a week, dropped out. He says he tried to make a living as a cook, but that didn't work out. Besides, there was no money in it. Though his mother and father had income from government jobs -- plus the little his mother says they made hustling drugs -- they didn't have any real money. Then there were all the people who lived in the Edmonds' home, "20 or 30 people," including his grandmother, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters, cousins and aunts. In the jail interviews, he recalls the summer nights when everyone was at the M Street house and talking about going down to the waterfront to get some crabs. The family would turn to him and say, " 'Rayful, you got any money?' {And} I be like, 'Yeah, I got a little bit of money. We'll go.' " To hear Rayful tell it, his parents were always looking to him for money. So were his brothers and sisters. So were his friends. "If I have money, I don't mind giving it to somebody if I got it, my love or anything else. I'm just a good guy to be around with . . . I'm just a great person."

When he met Alta Rae Zanville, who later testified against him, the first thing she remembers him telling her was: I know you're "trying to make some money." He had seen her peddling jewelry out of the back of her car to people at the Florida Avenue Grill. Rayful Edmond pulled out some cash and bought a gold ring from her. Then he gave the ring back to her but let her keep the money. He was the first person who had been nice to her in some time, she said later, explaining how their friendship began.

To Rayful Edmond III, money was the key to friendship. For example, when his boyhood pal Royal Brooks went away to college in North Carolina, Edmond wanted to stay in touch and keep the friendship alive so he arranged for Brooks to make some money by selling drugs down there. Then, when Brooks returned to D.C., Edmond paid him big bucks for storing money and drugs. Eventually Edmond put millions of dollars in Brooks's hands and sent him to California to buy cocaine.

He wanted his limousine driver, Anthony Chaconas, to like him. From prison he brags, "I been over to his house, ate over his house . . . We was great friends." In an effort to make Chaconas his friend, Edmond would throw a couple hundred dollars at Chaconas now and again. When Edmond learned that Chaconas was behind on his bills Edmond gave him money. "He treated me exceptionally well for a client," Chaconas would later testify. But he never described Edmond as his friend.

Edmond spent money at Beharry Jewelers too, and again what he thought he bought was friendship. He fondly talks about Henry Beharry being such a friend that "I'd go down there in the back of the store, go in the jewelry thing and take jewelry. He give me jewelry. He ain't tell 'em none of that -- he just wanted to make like 'I don't have no association with this guy,' like I was the baddest person in the world. We was best friends."

"Everyone who comes in my store is like a friend," says Beharry. "No one comes behind the counter. And I don't give anything away. This is no charity. This is a business. No freebies. Paying customers only. I did business with Rayful. That's it. That's the truth."

Looking back on his first trial, Edmond feels betrayed by many of the people he once thought were genuine friends. And what really hurts Rayful Edmond now, as he sits in prison, is that the prosecutors made him out to be a "bad guy," and all his "friends" didn't stand up for him. In fact, several of them -- including Zanville and Brooks -- testified against him.

"If they really care, and loved me like they was supposed to, they wouldn't have did certain things, you know," he says. In his mind, Rayful Edmond is still being a good friend, taking the rap for a lot of so-called friends.

"They saying that they did this or did that for me; they done it for theyself. They didn't do it for Rayful. I didn't, say, put no gun to their head or nobody, saying, 'Well, you better do this or go do that . . .' "

Then why, Rayful, would so many people lie about one man?

"Everybody had incentives to lie. If they {the government} . . . come to you and say you gonna go to jail with this guy if you don't tell us certain things . . . you gonna think of things to say so that you can help yourself.

In another interview, Edmond adds, "I'm not saying I'm no angel. Nobody in that case was probably no angel. But right is right and wrong is wrong. Then when people come in here making up stuff, it's just unreal . . . I'm no angel. I ain't the nicest person in the world, but I'm not what they're saying I am. Definitely not. People just saying things to help themselves."

As for his mother's words on the Zanville tape, which were used to great effect by the prosecution to prove that he was a big drug dealer, Edmond says: "That's my mother and I gotta accept whatever come from her . . . Eventually, you know, it hurt a lot of people by her saying that, so my being upset about it ain't going to help."

Edmond and his mother ran into each other at the D.C. Jail when they happened to be in the interview room at the same time to see their lawyers. "I told her she didn't have to explain nothing to me. That was all," he says.

Although he was convicted of running a "continuing criminal enterprise" with the purpose of selling cocaine, Edmond keeps pointing out that the prosecutors could never produce any evidence that he personally sold anyone drugs. He says, "What somebody else done is their business. I wasn't with them when they done it. I didn't encourage them to do it. I didn't know anything about it."

Edmond thinks he could have helped himself by talking about what some of his "friends" were doing to break the law. "I'm taking a lot of weight for a lot of different people and I don't really have to if I don't want to because I know certain things . . . So look at it like this: How can you say something bad about me knowing that . . . you might have done something wrong yourself . . . ? How can you turn your mouth and say something bad about me? Just how can you do it?"

He is particularly mad at his junior high school pal Royal Brooks, who gave long, detailed accounts of Edmond's drug operation. Brooks also testified against Edmond's mother. One of Edmond's lawyers called Brooks a "slippery witness," and scorned Brooks for agreeing to testify despite "your love for Rayful Edmond."

"{Royal} said a lot of things about me," Edmond says. "Me and him was like brothers . . . Me and him was real tight. We was good friends and stuff. I couldn't believe him coming to court saying things like that about me. It was kind of strange."

In exchange for his testimony against Edmond, Brooks is scheduled to get out of jail soon. Edmond thinks Brooks will have a rough time. Edmond sounds an ominous note as he says matter-of-factly, "What he did, he can't ever go live in Washington, D.C., and be safe and don't have to look behind his back. I don't have to do nothing to him. It's just people in general . . . 'cause they are gonna be like, 'What if I'm your best friend and something happen? . . . You might betray me.' And then I'm saying it's gonna be hard for him to get women, because women don't like men like that who are weak. That mean they stronger than they men."

When Rayful Edmond was arrested at a girlfriend's house in April 1989 and taken to D.C. Jail, he didn't expect to be in for long. There were reports that he was so well-regarded by jail guards that they let him order pizza and have visits from his girlfriends. At his arraignment he said nothing more than his name. When a U.S. magistrate denied bond to him and the 16 others swept up with him in a weekend of arrests, Edmond recalls being surprised. He figured it would be one night in jail and out: "I didn't know how bad my situation was or how it was going to turn out."

By the time his trial had come to an end, though, he had guessed the verdict because of questions the jury was asking the judge during four days of deliberation. But Edmond had a low opinion of the jury from the start. "If you look back, our jury was dumb," he says. "That was the thing that hurt us from the jump. They was dumb. Like they had to tell us where they went to school, what they do, and most of them didn't even graduate. Half the jury didn't even make it out of junior high school . . . When you got somebody sitting up there, dumb, probably can't even write their name {and} they are judging your life -- that's rough."

Edmond argues that the jury didn't understand what he was charged with. "Even if I know somebody that's got some drugs," he says, "and I say, 'Go get that for me,' or something like that -- well, that still don't make me guilty for what I'm charged with {conspiracy to sell drugs}. Like one girl testified that I gave her a bag one day . . . told her to take it somewhere. She never looked in it. I never told her what was in it. She did it, and I gave her $300 . . . So she never looked in it or nothing . . . It could have been anything {in the bag}, so how can the jury misinterpret and say, 'Okay, it must have been drugs'? You can be guilty of something, but that doesn't mean that you have to get found guilty of it. Understand what I'm saying? . . . I could have been guilty of something . . . {but} I shouldn't be serving a life sentence."

After his conviction, Edmond told The Post that he would have fared better in his drug trial if the jury had not been all black, because "white people would have taken their time" examining the evidence and made sure the government had proved its case.

The black jury was also a group of "small-time" people, he says, who have never been to Las Vegas or championship fights or driven expensive cars. Edmond believes that the jury looked at him as a young black man and said, " 'How in the hell could he do all of this?' And some of them mighta been 40 or 50 years old, and they never did nothing in their life."

Eventually he got angry at his lawyers too. At the urging of his father, Edmond had hired Baltimore attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. to represent him. Then later, at the suggestion of his grandmother, he also hired James Robertson, a flamboyant Howard University law professor. Murphy and Robertson argued over courtroom strategy and at times even battled over who should speak to the judge. They tried to get Edmond to make a choice between them, but he refused. "I didn't want nobody to say, 'Well, why did you let him down, {and} make the other one feel uncomfortable?' "

Looking back on the trial, he now wishes he had ignored Murphy's counsel to not take the stand and testify. "Billy was like, 'No, don't do that,' " Edmond recalls. "That's why I say when your life is on the line, I realize now that you got to do what you want to do . . . Your lawyer ain't gonna do the time."

Now Edmond is also mad at the lawyers for his co-defendants too. He thinks the lawyers are encouraging his friends and family to talk to the prosecution and blame everything on Rayful Edmond III. "I ain't trust none of their lawyers . . . They was sneaky, looking out for their clients' best interest . . . At one point in time, it was like a family thing . . . I thought everybody was going to stick together. I look at {any lawyer} like an outside person . . . and you haven't known him for a long time and you're going to let him turn you against one of your friends. You can't let them do that. I'm not into hurting none of my friends."

But as he prepares for his murder trial, Edmond intends to do some talking. "I just got a different attitude about this trial," he says. "I'm going to look out for myself a little more, especially when I know I ain't done nothing wrong."

Edmond expects an acquittal on the murder charge because, he argues, he didn't actually pull the trigger to kill anyone, and the government is going to have a difficult time proving that he ordered anyone to commit murder. And with an acquittal, he believes, will come a new public attitude toward him.

"People are going to look at things differently then," he says. "They gonna be like: 'Damn, he ain't no murderer or nothing. Maybe he is a drug dealer, but he's not all that bad of a person if he dealt in drugs. The mayor doing it.' You know what I'm saying?"

Regardless of the outcome of his murder trial, Edmond's long-term home is a small cell in the Marion penitentiary. Just down the hall there is a window, but he can't really see out of it from his cell, so he doesn't know if the day is rainy or sunny. Most days he wears just a T-shirt and underpants and spends time watching TV, writing letters (four or five a day in a very neat script), doing exercises (400 push-ups, along with sit-ups and squats) and sleeping. He is generally restricted to visits from close relatives and his lawyers. He's only had two visitors at Marion -- a reporter and a lawyer --

since he was sent there in February. Throughout the interviews, especially at the beginning, Edmond seems nervous, even disoriented at having to talk. As he answers one question after another, he licks his lips repeatedly, pulls at his lower lip and constantly raises his eyebrows. Edmond's eyebrows are a surprise because they don't arch over his eyes but jut up his forehead and stop.

He describes Marion as a place where prisoners want to take their frustrations out on each other. "I wish I was in another institution," he says at one point, sitting in the cramped interview room. He explains that Marion is for the most dangerous criminals and that he's not violent. He closes his eyes tight for a moment. "I wouldn't wish this place on anybody."

If he wants to hear the sound of another voice from a nearby cell, he has to call out carefully in a low voice because he does not want to risk having another prisoner tell him to shut up, an act of disrespect that he would have to respond to. That could lead to more trouble. "In Marion you just really don't have too much communication," he says. "And sometimes you feel lost, and then the people . . . they not really functioning right."

"People," he says, his eyes darting up to look at his interviewer, "they tend to age a lot at Marion. They worry. They don't wanna be here . . . People be loving their families, and they can't call them . . . It's lonely here . . . You get lonely some days when you think about your family."

When he talks about his family and M Street, Edmond recalls the summer nights they would go down to Hains Point, picnics at Lake Fairfax and crabs from Morgan's Sea Food on the waterfront. He gives a slow smile as he talks about the mountains of food his family would cook for Thanksgiving, a holiday that falls on or near his November 26 birthday.

But he has to work hard to maintain those family memories in the walled-in space of Marion. His family has been spread far and wide to jails as far away as California.

"I'm going through the hardest," he says, pulling at his lips, licking them. "Probably harder than anybody else been through, but I don't let it bother me. I just try to be me, just be Rayful . . . Like a lot of people come to jail and they get caught up into what's happening in the institution, but that's not what life is about. Life's about being free and living in the streets . . . If you ever did any time, you know it ain't nothing like being free once you been here. If I ever went home, I would never come back."

Despite his life sentence without parole and the murder charge beyond that, Edmond is making plans for when he gets out. He dreams now of opening a nightclub. In one room he would have big movie screens, he says. In another room there would be pool tables. And in a special room people could watch "like nasty movies." Then there would be room for dancing and "a bar where they can buy all they want or whatever they want." There would be a dress code: "casual shoes, slacks and a jacket."

"I could just put my name up there and people just come because they say, 'Oh, that's Rayful's club.' "

At one point he leans over and says, "I'm just here . . . until one day I catch a break . . . get back in court and maybe get some of the time back and have a date to go home. I just be thinking like that . . ."

Then Rayful Edmond -- the pampered child who was treated like royalty, the big man on his high school campus, the wheeler-dealer tycoon who wanted to be known and admired by so many friends -- says that after being in jail he now has a single, simple wish: "I just wish I was just, you know, just like anybody else, just be right in with the crowd."

It may be a true wish, it may be just hype and jive -- with Edmond, it's always a little hard to tell. But one thing is certain: It won't come true any time soon.

Washington Post staff writer Nancy Lewis contributed to this article.