A 21-year-old man just sentenced to life imprisonment broke away from his jailers in a busy Circuit Court building here today, prompting one guard to fire a shot into the ceiling before the fleeing man was captured unharmed outside the courthouse.

The brief dramatic incident occurred just after Bryant D. Purnell was sentenced in the fourth-floor courtroom of Judge Robert L. Karwacki for first-degree murder and use of a handgun.

As two jailers led the handcuffed Purnell to a lockup on the fourth floor, Purnell, who had worked one hand loose from his handcuffs, bolted and raced down the stairs at the east end of the building, according to Baltimore police spokesman Mike Bass.

Jailers pursued, shouting to visitors and employes on the dimly lit marble steps to clear out of the way. Jailer Robert Davis fired a single shot into the ceiling as onlookers ducked for cover, Bass said.

Purnell made it to the ground floor and burst out onto the courthouse steps, where he stopped running and slowed to a walk when he saw a uniformed city deputy sheriff who happened to be walking toward the courthouse, Bass said.

The deputy, Clarence Vogelsang, spotted Purnell's dangling handcuffs and stopped him for questioning as the jailers rushed from the courthouse and took Purnell back into custody.

A large crowd gathered and an ambulance came to the scene in response to a false report that a woman bystander had been wounded by the gunfire.