FROM THE START it made no sense. It was maybe 5 in the morning and we were on the floor of the courthouse, sprawled out in exhaustion, waiting for the arraignment of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the leader of the Hanafis. One by one the reporters who knew the building, the ones who covered the courts full-time, went off somewhere and when they came back their faces said they had news. Soon the word spread and soon everyone knew that Khaalis would be freed. It made no sense.

This was more than a week ago, but the questions have not gone away. They were there that night and they began with the appearance of Earl Silbert, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who was similing. He was in the courtroom, in the part where the lawyers perform, and he was smiling.You wanted to tell him that he should not smile - that he was partcipating in a disgrace. Reporters do not say such things, however - they take notes and ask questions.

There was a commotion at the doorway and Khaalis came in. He walked quickly. He was shorter than you would think and older, but his walk was properly resolute. He was a terroist after all. Then he stood before the judge and people were saying "may it please the court" and "your honor" and "do you understand?" Khaalis stood or sat between two lawyers and from the back he was not much to see. Then he stood again and a group of marshals surrounded him and he was gone- vanished. He was free.

We ran around to the side of the courthouse and waited for him there. The television crews set up their lights, and a truck pulled with cameras on the roof. A man came out and said Khaalis would not be coming our way. There was a tinge of dawn in the sky and it no longer mattered, frankly, to see Khaalis.

What counted was that he was free.He had held more than 100 hostages in three buildings. A man was dead. Others were injured. The city had been tied up. He had yelled threats at the city over the radio and television. He talked of cutting off heads and now the people at the court-house were protecting him - telling the press that he would not be coming their way.

It made no sense. You wanted something more. You wanted the man in jail, but the government had made its deal. The government, the chief of police said, could not renege on its promise. It did not seem to matter to him that the promise was made at the point of a gun. A promise is a promise is a promise. The chief talked also of credibility. He said that the government had to be believed. He said nothing of the people's right to believe that the government would do the right thing. He said, too, that you should not criticize the decision. He said you had to be there. It's the sort of thing people say when a story has fallen flat - you had to be there.

Then I remembered the last time I had felt this way. It was 1975 and it involved two young men - one named Dockery and one named McCrea. Maybe you remember the incident. McCrea was in town for the summer and he was walking near the P Street Bridge when Dockery put a knife into him. There had been an eyewitness - the woman with Dockery. She said Dockery was saying how much he hated white people - "white people do us bad," she quoted him as saying. She sneered at him and so he proved he meant what he said. He killed McCrea.

This was the story and this is what the judge did. He released Dockery on his own recognizance. He said that Dockery had no record and that he lived in this city with his mother and that he would probably show up for his trial. The judge said the law gave him no choice in the matter. He released the killer.

So I called the other day to see what had happened to Dockery. The library at the paper is full of his name. First there was the original story and then the arraignment and then the trial. Now we are at April, 1976, and the jury found Dockery guilty of murder in the second degree. It was then that the judge sent him to jail. The sentence was 16 to 46 years. He is in jail at the moment.

The news sort of shocked me because I was under the impression that Dockery had fled. Someone had told me that, and it was comforting to believe. I was going to use that case to show that the law is ridiculous and that the chief of police was wrong. But the facts say otherwise and you police knew he did not give up much when he have to go where they take you. The chief of made his deal. He did what the law allowed him to do.

He did right.