He slipped into a lavatory off Courtroom 10 where he was to be sentenced that day, April 8, and washed his face and prayed for the strength to leave his friends.

He was 35. He said he had been "born again," and he felt himself to be a new person transformed from the man whose life had turned hellish one May morning nearly a year ago when he had murdered his common-law wife.

Three hours later, Thomas Edward Clifford,who could have spent 30 years behind bars for the second-degree murder of Lula Belle Johnson, walked out of the Montgomery County courthouse and stood on the sunny steps as free as the noonday passersby.

To several dozen relatives and members of Clifford's church who packed the benches behind the defendant, and electrified the courtroom with their fervor, it was something of a miracle.

"I have a friend who's been in prison," said one member of the congregaton."He told me, 'I know you beleive in God, honey, but you better hold off on this one. That man's got to get some time.' He couldn't believe it."

To those who felt that Clifford should have paid more dearly for what began as a first-degree murder charge, the suspended sentence was a shock. Using a hand gun in a felony alone carries an automatic five-year jail term.

As state's attorney Michael Mason put it, a jail term was in order "to reflect the fact that society feels that the loss of Lula Johnson's life was important."

In the days that followed the sentencing, the judge in the case, David L. Cahoon, a devout Catholic who is not considered an especially lenient jurist, received a flood of protesting phone calls.

Some judges in Montgomery County get as many as a dozen letters a month from inmates who profess to have found God and been reborn, but Cahoon believed that in Clifford's case testimony of the conversion was not a ploy. His remorse was "deep-seated" and "genuine," Cahoon said, and for that reason the judge gave Clifford a 15-year suspended sentence, and five years' probation.

Cahoon's decision prompted an outburst of emotion in the Montgomery County court room as Clifford was surrounded by weeping members of the Everlasting Peace Baptist Church in Northease Washington, who had taken him in. In his regular radio show the following Sunday, the church's pastor, the Rev. James Rudasil, told his audience that a man in his church had committed murder, confessed before Christ, and been forgiven.

Alone in the midst of the celebrating that day had been Rose George, Lula Johnson's 23-year-old younger sister.

"I couldn't believe it," George said. "I was so disgusted. It was like they were glorifying him. Ain't nobody mentioned Lula's children. He (Clifford) said he was buying a plaque for my sister's grave. If it hadn't been for him my sister wouldn't need no plaque."

For Thomas Edward Clifford, the murder that would change his life was the culmination of years of living on the fringe, of drugs, liquor and violence.

When he was growing up in northeast Washington, everyone called him "Scoop." He was the youngest of six children. His father, a postman, died when he was six. At 16 he was only in the seventh grade, and he decided to quit. He couldn't read a menu, but he wanted to be "Mr. Big" like the other guys and "drive big fine cars."

What he did was drink and eat amphetamines and Dilaudid. There were binges when he didn't come home for three days. His marriage to a woman named Ametta Languished in neglect and abuse. One day his wife took their two children to North Carolina and never came back.

Lula Belle Johnson was the mother of two children and a lively, openminded 23-year-old when she met Thomas Clifford one night at the Ebony Inn in Washington in 1972. She was the kind of person who would do things just for the experience and she worked hard to get ahead. The two of them took a house in her name on Good Hope Drive in Silver Spring.

But Clifford, then working as a laborer for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, still drank heavily. Once, incensed in a funk of vodka and rum, he smashed up Johnson's furniture. In 1976 he was hospitalized with seizures, and kicked the habit for a year or so.

But it didn't last. He hid bottles in the house, and rinsed his breath with mouthwash.

Johnson fixed chicken and ribs, and read the menu to clifford when they went out to eat. She worked two jobs, 16 hours a day. But too much was going bad. They were living together but they were seeing other people.

Last spring, according to the police, she told a friend she was going to "have to leave Thomas Clifford or die because of him." In May she resolved to go.

It was just after 8 a.m. May 30 when she got home to Good Hope Drive from her overnight shift as a nurse's aide at the Great Oaks Center. She had decided to go home to Alabama. In the upstairs bedroom of the house she encountered her common-law husband who had not gone to work that morning. He wanted her to get out and wanted her to stay with him at the same time.

What happened next is unclear. Clifford remembers lunging at Lula who held a .38-caliber Colt revolver on him. "I don't know where the gun came from or whose it was," he recalled with difficulty. "I just grabbed it . . . I just grabbed it . . . I just grabbed it."

The state's attorney said that if the case had gone to trial the evidence would have shown that Clifford held the revolver six feet away from Lula Johnson, and fired three shots, two of which slammed into her right arm and chest. Then he opened the chamber to see if there was another bullet, struck the barrel in his own stomach and clicked the trigger again.

"I remember taking my last breath," he said, "and going down. The shot knocked me back. My chest hurt so bad."

In the next few moments, Clifford says, a visionary landscape unlike any he had ever beheld unfurled before him.

"I felt like I'd left my body, and was walking in clouds toward a white satiny cloud," he remembered. "They were lit up real pretty. I could see what was ahead, and I could hear voices of many other people talking. Their voices were like a chant, loud and sweet and soft. It was the sound of all the people that had died at that time.

"It was so peaceful. You didn't have to breathe, you didn't have to do anything. Everybody was going forward and then there was this vacuum pulling me back and suddenly I sat up and there was blood coming out of my chest. I was hurting so bad I didn't have time to think about no white light."

When he came to, he staggered to his feet. He was in the living room. "I went upstairs to Lula," he says. "She was still alive. I said 'I'm hit too honey. I'm going to help.'"

Montgomery County detectives found two trails of blood, one on the stairs from the bedroom to the living room, and another out the back door to a neighbor's house where Clifford had gone for help.

Lula Johnson died two hours later at Montgomery General Hospital. Thomas Clifford underwent major surgery at Suburban Hospital that left a 15-inch median of scar tissue on his chest. After two months he was transferred to the county detention center where he was held without bail on charges of first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a felony.

"The worst moment," Clifford recalled, "was when I finally realized Lula was dead. I had been on drugs in the hospital. When my mind finally cleared, I knew what I had done. I could visualize it. I killed someone I love."

To break the tedium at the detention center, he learned to read from the Bible. "I read, 'In the beginning was the word and the word was God, and the word was made flesh and walked among us.' That messed me up. How could a word be made flesh?"

Clifford enrolled in Bible class and began attending church three times a week in the detention center.

On the eve of the new year he went into his room with another inmate named Michael Brown to pray. Out in the hall, the inmates were whooping and hollering to inaugurate a new decade.

"Our voices got louder and louder over the voices of the other guys making noise out in the hall," Clifford said. "My flesh started tingling, and all of a sudden we were lifted right up, we rose up like we were stretched up to the ceiling, and a warm cottonlike blanket embraced us. You could feel it, we had drifted into another world."

The the mind of Thomas Clifford, who was thus "reborn," what followed was a series of provident happenings that simply illustrated the truth of his convictions.

He made bond on the second Sunday inJanuary. He went straight to the Everlasting Peace Baptist Church, where he was welcomed into the fold by the Rev. Rudasill who had tried four years earlier to lead Clifford to Jesus.

On Feb. 22 he accepted the counsel of his lawyers to plead to second-degree murder, and face a maximum 30 years in jail and possible immediate revocation of his bond. He was tired, he said, and wanted to tell the truth and "stand up like a man."

"I had never done anything strong in my life before," he said. "I killed Lula I have pain. I'm not no religious fanatic, I'm not one of those people who can kick it all on Jesus. I'm a man. I'm flesh."

At the Everlasting Peace Church, two Sunday's ago, Pastor Rudasill surveyed the worshippers who had gathered in the one-room, store-front church. It was a small crowd, all women and children except for Thomas Clifford, who sat in the front row, a free man with a job at a grocery store, a church and a new life.

Toward the end of his sermon the pastor leaned over the pulpit and said in a gentle voice, "Don't be hanging your head Brother Clifford." And suddenly he brought his ham-sized fist crashing down and boomed out in a thundering baritone. "The Lord made you a new creature. He washed you WHITE AS SNOW AND PUT A NEW SONG IN YOUR MOUTH!"

The children quit fidgeting. The women sighed and swayed. Brother Clifford clasped his hands and said, "Praise God, praise God."

Across town in her southeast home, Rose George ponders the strange twists of circumstance that let her sister's slayer go free.

"I believe that all that has happened is God's will," she said. "I can't bring Lula back, but there hasn't been a night in the last eight or nine months that I couldn't see the whole thing, the picture of the way she was. I don't hate Thomas Clifford. That's one of the things I'm trying to figure out. Maybe it's the working of God, but for some reason I don't feel hate. But I wouldn't want him to come near me."

Dwayne Anderson, a Washington policeman and life-long friend of Clifford who testified at his trial, believes there is a lesson in Clifford's story.

"Sometimes," he says, "God has to take one life to give another. One life was taken and at the same time, one was given."