William Edgar Jones Jr., once a prominent lawyer in Fairfax, sobbed quietly with his head bowed yesterday as he pleaded for mercy from a judge who has heard numerous cases brought by Jones but now was about to sentence him.

"Mr. Jones," Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Barnard F. Jennings began, "this is one of the hardest cases I've ever had to make a decision on."

Several minutes later Jenning sentenced Jones to serve two years on probation, but suspended a two-year prison sentence for Jones' grand larceny conviction in connection with the theft of nearly $28,000 from one of his clients. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The sentence Jennings imposed was contrary to a probation officer's recommendation that Jones be sent to prison.

"He was well versed in the law and knew the consequences," Peter Mire, a state probation and parole officer, said after the hearing. "This type of thing had been transpiring for a number of years. I believe his actions subvert and undermine the legal structure.

One of Jones' two attorneys, Charles F. Geschickter, told how Jones worked his way through college and law school, but added "there's no doubt that (Jones) has disgraced himself and disgraced his profession." Jones' suffering since his criminal activity became public "is more than any incarceration," Geschickter said.

Jones, 33, said, "Words cannot express my personal humiliation and shame, facing the bench this way," and that his actions "have not only brought disgrace to my family but to the court."

Jones' attorney, Geschickter and Robert C. Watson, quickly brushed past two reporters after the hearing and said they would not comment on the case or reveal their names. Also, Jones' presentence report, which outlined the events that led to Jones' indictment last March, has been sealed.

But a source said that Feb. 1 Jones, of 9605 Bel Glade St. in Fairfax, took nearly $28,000 out of the trust account of a client, Mary R. Hayes.

Jones placed $23,500 of the money in another client's trust account that was short of money and deposited $4,000 of the money in his private bank account, the source said. Jones has since returned the money, according to the source.

Jones pleaded guilty March 30 to the charge of grand larceny in connection with the incident.

Jones was disbarred in Virginia March 4.

Several attorneys who were in the Fairfax Courthouse appeared to be upset when they learned that Jones had not been given a prison sentence, but said they did not want to be quoted.

Jennings acknowledged that the sentence he imposed "may be criticized by some people.

"If I would send you to the penitentiary it surely would not help you," Jennings told Jones before he was sentenced. "The only useful purpose of a prison sentence would be as a deterrent to others, use you as a lesson to others." But Jennings said prison would not be helpful to Jones.

"I hope you can gather together the pieces of your life," Jennings said.