Twelve jurors, their coats bundled in their arms, watched solemnly as the government porsecutor rose from his seat in D.C. Superior Court, about to describe the crime.

In a green cardboard box, under a table in the well of Courtroom 16, lay the essence of the government's case - three hats. Total value: $41. The charge was petit larceny, also known as shoplifting.

The issue was not the stuff of great courtroom drama. But the trappings of the administration of justice - the courtroom formalities, the rigors of trial practice and the rules of proper procedure - were complete.

The judge, in black robe, had taken his place at the bench. The prosecutor had positioned himself at one end of the jury box. The two defendants, a man and a woman, neatly dressed and attentive, were seated with their lawyers. The witnesses had been assembled. The court reporter had adjusted the paper in her stenographic machine.

In the sleep-inducing warmth of this small, wood-paneled courtroom, a man in a brown leather jacket had nestled himself into a new and dozed off.

Three other men sat in the courtroom - expressionless. They watched the trial begin, a final that would take almost three days and cost the government an estimated $2,424 before it was done.

"The government intends to prove within a reasonable doubt that the two defendants committed larceny . . ." the government prosecutor informed the jury.

And thus began another misdemeanor trial. As in most of these trials, there would be no life or death questions, no heady legal arguments, no moments of gripping testimony, no fascinating details. With misdemeanors, there is instead the routine of everyday crime - unlawful entry, simple assault, illegal possession of drugs and prohibited weapons (from guns to combs) . . . and shoplifting.

But for thousands of victims, defendants, and witnesses, the legal disposition of these minor offenses provides an introduction - at times not always a good one - to the city's criminal justice system.

More than 8,000 misdemeanor cases were disposed of in D.C. Superior Court between October, 1976, and September, 1977, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. The maximum penalty by law for these offenses is one year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

The prosecutor in the three-hat case was Richard L. Caplan, thin, wiry and intense. He was dressed in a three-piece beige suit. His voice was loud, his tone agressive. A recruit from the Manhattan district attorney's office, Caplan has been with the misdemeanor trial section of the U.S. Attorney's office for four months. In the courtroom, like other beginners in the prosecutor's office, he keeps a thick black loose-leaf binder full of directions on trial procedure.

Misdemeanor court is the training ground for newcomers to the U.S. Attorney's office, said Jeffrey T. Demerath, deputy chief of the misdemeanor trial section. It is the place where the fledgling prosecutor learns the discipline of courtroom practice. And there were times during the three-hat case when Judge Edmond T. Daly took on the role of law school professor, for the defense as well as for the prosecution.

"Stop making statements, you're testifying . . . (just ask him what he did," Daly warned Caplan as the prosecutor tried to question a witness in the trial, which took place last month.

"Explain hearsay to me," Daly asked defense attorney Paul G. Evans at one point in the trial.

At the outset of the trial, Caplan told thejury that the government's evidence would show that on the night of October 17, 1977, Dakota Plummer, 25, formerly known as Karen E. Hill, walked into the Lane Bryant department store on F Street NW, approached a rack of women's hats and proceeded to make "an elaborate show" of trying on various styles and admiring herself in a mirror.

Then, Caplan claimed she handed the hats to her male alleged accomplice, Jessie L. Edwards, 28, also known as Jessie L. Sherpard, who removed the price tags and dropped the hats into a brown paper shopping bag.

Having "made no effort to pay" for the hats, Caplan told the jury, the two left the store, followed by two security guards who would testify they witnessed the entire hat-rack affair.

Out on the sidewalk, a virtual "tug-of-war" broke out between Plummer and the two security guards, Caplan said, and eventually Edwards joined in the tussle.

It ended when some D.C. policemen happened along and assisted the security officers in arresting Plummer and Edwards, Caplan said.

Judge Daly, 65, a veteran of misdemeanor court who is known to be both crusty and fatherly in his courtroom manner, stroked his chin during much of the testimony. Apparently, he had heard these kinds of stories before.

The government's first witness was Patrick J. Mayhew, who looked young and uneasy. He had been security officer in Lane Bryant's for five months, he said.

The testimony proceeded smoothly until Caplan attempted to introduce various shopping bags into evidence. Mayhew could not remember that he had marked the bags with his initials on the night of the incident - so that he could identify them later in court.

Caplan got frustrated. He prodded his witness with leading questions. The defense attorneys bobbed up and down from their seats, objecting to Caplan's manner of inquiry.

Judge Daly warned the prosecutor. Caplan tossed the bags at Mayhew and told him to look at them carefully. Mayhew found his initials.

The three-hat case carried on, but it was dull. The two defense attorneys scrutinized the three hats - one wool beret and two fur caps - and looked for marks and labels. Mayhew was made to produce his security officer's license. The sales tickets were introduced into evidence. The whole process was slow and tedious.

The real activity was across the hall in Courtroom 15 - Misdemeanor Calender Control. The oversized courtroom was filled with people shifting back and forth in their seats, many of them grumbling. This is the starting point for the 70 or more misdemeanor cases scheduled for trial each day.

The windows sills are covered with briefcases and coats - and hats. Crowded around a table in front of the courtroom were clerks, prosecutors, defense attorneys and, on occasion, a defendant. In a green leather chair above it all sat the judge, a referee over this swell of activity and confusion.

Papers were passed around at the bench. The assistant U.S. attorney was on the telephone. The judge rested his head on his hand. A court clerk called out the numbers and names of the cases. The object here was to figure out whether the cases are ready to go to trial.

One case was called, but it seemed that an undercover policeman - presumably a witness - was missing. "He is being looked for on the street," someone said. The case was "passed" until later in the day.

"We just don't know what happened to it," the government prosecutor said to the judge about another case when it was called up.

The defense attorney in that case

Down the hall from Courtroom 15 is a dingy green waiting room, generously called the "Witness Lounge."

In a corner of the room, a assistant U.S. attorney rapidly shuffled through the day's worth of court jackets on scheduled cases. The rows of blue plastic chairs are filled with people - presumably witnesses. Some were asleep, some had their feet propped up on desks. The title floor was stained and littered with cigarette butts. A woman called names out over a microphone.Lawyers and police officers were crowded around her. Everyone asked questions. Telephones were ringing. The prosecutor took the microphone.

[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] moved for a dismissal and the judge agreed. The attorney turned around and winked at a man in the courtroom, who appeared to be his client.

"There are too many" continuances, Chief Judge Harold H. Greene acknowledged in a recent interview. The chief judge usually assigns six of his 44 judges to hear misdemeanor cases during a court term. Last fall, when a huge increase in misdemeanor cases - due to a police crackdown on drunk drivers - threatened to put a strangle-hold on the system, Greene added to the pool of judges available to hear misdemeanor cases.

It is a kind of "crisis oriented" judge-juggling that Greene said he would like to get away from.

"Detective Lara, L-A-R-A," he called out.

"Lara went down to grand jury," someone responded.

Over it all was heard the sound of shuffling cards. The noise came from a small room nearby where police officers waited to be called to tesitfy.Onlookers were crowded around two tables where card games were in progress.

It is the waiting - for witnesses to show up or for judges to become available - that runs a day in misdemeanor court into a dull and trying experience.

And it is the continuances, that result when a witness does not show up or a judge does not become available, that turns misdemeanor court into a series of frustrations for all concerned.

Defense attorneys recount an endless series of horror stories about misdemeanor cases, cases that have taken from several months to longer than a year to resolve because defendants did not show up or judges were not available or witnesses were missing or because at some point in the process, lawyers on either side were not ready to proceed with the case.

"The problem with misdemeanors is that there are too many of them and not enough people to handle them," said one defense attorney, Christopher Hoge.

"The major hassle really is the fantastic waste of time involved," said another defense attorney, Steffen Graae.

Back in Judge Daly's courtroom, defense attorney Evans was asking one of the Lane Bryant security officers if the "H" on a price tag stood for the French word for winter - "hiver."

Judge Daly looked disgusted. "She went to Maryland, not Princeton," he told the lawyer. The jury chuckled.

When the government closed its case, Evans moved for a "directed verdict" because, he argued the government had not made a "prima facie" case that is a case that could stand on the government's evidence alone.

Look said Judge Daly, to Evans. In a criminal case, the proper motion is one of a judgment of acquittal, not a directed verdict. Also, Daly said, the standard of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt," not whether the government made a "prima facie" showing of guilt.

"No, it is not," said Evans.

"You want to bet?" said Judge Daly.

"Yeah," said Evans. A wager of one dollar was proposed but Daly agreed to "a good sandwich."

"I'll give you the case to read," said the judge to the lawyer, who after some consideration conceded defeat.

Eventually, after Judge Daly denied Evans' motion, Dakota Plummer took the witness stand. She testified that she was not in Lane Bryant's on the night of Oct. 17, 1977, when she allegedly stole the three hats.

"I was sitting there (on F Street) fixing my watch," Plummer said in a soft voice, when Mayhew, the Lane Bryant security officer, suddenly approached her and announced she was under arrest. He wanted her to go into the store with him, but, Plummer testified, she refused.

"So he grabbed me and we started tussling," she testified. She was later taken to the Women's Detention Center, she told the jury.

"To what? her attorney asked.

"To jail," said Plummer. Her voice trembled, she bowed her head and began to sniffle. She got a tissue from her purse and dabbed her eyes.

Caplan launched into his cross-examination of the woman, asked her about various names he claimed she has used to Jessie Edwards (they are "friends," she said) and about the sidewalk struggle.

"You're using a very argumantative tone of voice stop it," Daly scolded the prosecutor. Caplan obe-directly toned down.

Plummer proceeded to testify that she had told the police, on the night of the incident, that it would have been "dumb" for her to go shoplifting in Lane Bryant's last Oct. 17 since she had just been in court a couple of hours earlier to be arraigned on another shoplifting charge.

Her codefendant, Jessie L. Edwards, began his testimony with a rapid-fire, animated description of his activities that night.

"I don't actually recall where I was, you know, uh, I was in front of Lane Bryant's," he told the jury.

Mayhew "walked past me and the three dudes I was walking to" and then the struggle began with Plummer, Edwards testified.

"Man, what's happening, get your hands off her, she didn't do anything," Edwards said he told Mayher.

Edwards started to tell the jury what the "other brothers" said about the fight when Caplan jumped up from his seat.

"Objection to what the other brothers were saying," the prosecutor said, shaking his head back and forth and grinning.

Finally, Edwards said, he found himself literally wrapped up with his friend Dakota Plummer inside Lane Bryant's.

"Why you got this broad handcuffed around me? Let me go," Edwards said he told Mayhew.

Under Caplan's questioning, Edwards said he intended to go from F Street to the southwest mall that night to "hang out." As Edwards attempted to describe the route he planned to take - including the appropriate bus - his testimony became hopelessly tangled. Caplan moved on to another subject.

The jurors began their deliberations. After four hours, they announced to Judge Daly that they were hung - stalemated at a vote of 11 to 1 for conviction. Judge Daly said later that he could not let the jury haggle over the three hats any longer. He declared a mistrial.

"I think I've got to graduate" from misdemeanor trials, the judge said when it was over."It's getting me down."

On that same afternoon, in Courtroom 19, where Judge George D. Neilson was "taking pleas," another government prosecutor was rattling off a familiar story.

Last Dec. 13, he began, in the 1200 block of 14th Street NW, the defendant approached a police officer (presumably in plainclothes) and "enganged him in conversation in which she agreed to exchange sexual favors in return for $30."

The defendant, 24 years old, pregnant and wearing a rumpled corduroy coat, had spent the last seven days in jail, according to her attorney. She wanted to go back to Los Angeles. She pleaded guilty to sexual solicitation.