Charles Baxter pleaded guilty yesterday to simple assault and received a suspended sentence. He was about to go free for the first time since his arrest last June when the judge pointed out that Baxter had no place to go and no way to get there.

"He doesn't even have car fare to get to St. Elizabeths," said Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio of D.C. Superior Court. "How is he going to get to the hospital?"

It was important that Baxter be able to get to St. Elizabeths so he continue to receive the transquilizers he has been getting daily, Nunzio said.

There was also the problem of where Baxter, 34, formerly a maintenance man in an apartment building, would be able to stay. Edward McKenna, his attorney, said that Baxter's mother and sister refused to have him live with them.

"l would have an easier time if he had been convicted of a serious felony," Nunzio said. lf Baxter had been found guilty of a serious offense, the judge indicated, he could be sent to an instituion that could provide him with psychiatric and other care.

But that was not Baxter's case. He had already been in custody for nearly 10 months, and the maximum penalty for simple assault is one year.

He thus illustrated the difficulty the criminal justice system has in dealing with persons convicted of minor crimes who have histories of mental illness. The criminal courts are set up to deal with crimes. Sentences are designed to rehabilitate, to punish and to deter others. The courts are not designed to care for the minor offender after his release.

Baxter was arrested last June 22 after strking his wife, Marthena, from whom he had been estranged for a year, and causing "lacerations to the mouth," according to a police report made at the time.

At his arraigment the following day a psychiatric examination was ordered and he was found incompetent to stand trial. That legal standard competence is that the defendant understand the charges aginst him and be able to assist his lawyer in preparing his defense. Since Baxter was found incompetent, he was ordered to St. Elizabeths.

Several subsequent examinations also determined that he was incompetent. This finding was changed in January and in February he was released to a halfway house to await trial. Two weeks later he was placed in D.C. jail after complaints by halfway house authorities that he broke the rules because of "some type of mental illness," according to court documents.

Had Baxter gone to trial and been found innocent by reason of insanity, he would have been committed to St. Elizabeths. Thereafter he would have determine whether he had regained his sanity.

In view of the amount of time he had already been incarcerated, his guilty plea yesterday served to gain his release.

A U.S. marshal told Judge Nunzio that Baxter would have to return to the jail to get his clothes.

"He doesn't even have bus fare," Nunzio said.

A woman sitting among the spectators stood up and approached Baxter. She gave him $1. "May God bless you," she said.

"Thank you, Mrs. Owensby," said Nunzio.

Mrs. Owensby was in court to attend the sentencing of her son, Leon Michael Owensby, who was convicted on Jan. 27 of armed kidnapping, armed rape, armed sodomy, armed robbery and assault in separate attacks on three women and a 10-year-old girl.

All the attacks occurred on McMillan Drive NW overlooking McMillan Reservoir near the Howard University campus.

Charles Stowe, Owensby's attorney, asked that Nunzio send his client to the federal detention facility in Springfield, Mo., which has psychiatric facilities. Stowe said Owensby, 24, could undergo an extensive evaluation at Springfield and then be returned for a sentencing that might promote his rehabilitation.

Nunzio noted that Owensby had undergone a psychiatric study since his conviction. "They say they have no information of any mental disorder," the judge said.

He sentenced Owensby to 40 years to life in prison.

The decendent's mother pressed a handkerchief against her mouth as she left the courtroom.