When Nancy L. Kantarian pleaded guilty to stabbing and burning to death her two young daughters, psychiatrists said the Fairfax County mother was "distraught, depressed to the point of possibly being suicidal," and recommended long-term confinement for her in a mental hospital.

Now, barely two years later, the 32-year-old woman has been released from the hospital after some of the same psychiatrists told a judge, "It is apparent that she has undergone a metamorphosis as a result of intense psychotherapeutic intervention."

After listening to the turnaround in the psychiatrists' reports, Fairfax Circuit Court Chief Judge Barnard F. Jennings recently released Kantarian from a mental hospital, acknowledging, "We are taking some chance at this time." The judge's ruling prompted numerous telephone calls to the court and the county prosecutor's office from people questioning how a woman who stabbed one daughter 32 times and fatally beat and burned the other, could be well enough to return home.

Jenning's ruling illustrates what many say is the ambiguity and what others see as the benefit of an elaborate and costly psychiatric defense.

"I just think it points out the unbelievable inexactitude of the art of psychiatry," said Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who prosecuted the case. "What bugs me is that not a doctor can tell me what the trigger for the event was. And if nobody can tell you what the trigger of the activity was, how can you say she's safe?"

"It does strike me as being awfully soon," said attorney Joseph A. Condo, president of the Fairfax Bar Association. "I can understand why the public is boiling. But the experts were unanimous. If the experts say she's okay, the judge really has no choice."

While all of the doctors who examined Kantarian said in their written reports that Kantarian had not recovered completely and would require psychotherapy for an extended period, they also unanimously agreed that she was ready to leave the private hospital in Towson, Md., where her family has been paying the $300-a-day costs.

Dr. William H. Young Jr. of the Rappahannock Medical Center in Washington, Va., who told the court two years ago that Kantarian had experienced "an acute psychotic breakdown" at the time of the killings, said in reports presented to the court, "I do not believe that she is now a danger to society; she does, however, continue to be a danger to herself."

Many of the telephone calls to the courthouse and the comments from Kantarian's Great Falls neighbors questioned whether Jennings may have been influenced by the wealth and status of Kantarian's Rochester, N.Y., family and their ability to pay for some of the best psychiatric assistance on the East Coast. Kantarian's treatment included five psychiatric counseling sessions a week -- more than is often available at similar public institutions.

"I don't think the justice system is fair," said one of Kantarian's neighbors, who asked that her name not be used.

"I hear these comments," said Kantarian's attorney, Albert J. Ahern Jr., who acknowledged that her family's finances did help Kantarian. "Obviously everybody can't get the best psychiatric help in the world. I mean, we're dealing with high-grade psychiatrists."

Horan, who has achieved a national reputation as an expert in prosecuting criminal psychiatric defense cases, said he believes the united testimony of the psychiatrists helped free Kantarian.

"If I thought it was the money, I'd probably quit," he said in an interview. "It's the facts. I've been closed out by the mental health crowd."

"I think what people have to understand is that she's not just walking out of the hospital . . . it was very gradual," said Jennifer S. Joffe, Kantarian's court-appointed probation officer. "I've talked to people around me and most aren't sympathetic. I understand how someone could sit back and wonder how she could be out in two years. But I've witnessed it, and I've seen a change in her."

Kantarian, through Joffe, declined to be interviewed for this story. Her husband, a Washington lawyer, did not return a reporter's telephone calls.

The Kantarian case was one of the most controversial criminal proceedings in the Fairfax Circuit Court in recent years. In a plea agreement, Kantarian pleaded guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the May 23, 1984, deaths of her daughters. Jennings sentenced her to the maximum of 10 years in prison on each charge, but suspended the 20 years on the condition that she be confined to a mental hospital.

At her sentencing in October 1984, Jennings said: "There is no need to punish you. You've been punished severely already . . . . And I don't think we really need to protect you from society."

The Maryland hospital where Kantarian was confined began giving her day passes to leave the facility about five months after she was sentenced, then expanded them to overnight and weekend passes. Kantarian eventually rented an apartment and worked part time at a boutique in downtown Baltimore -- freedoms that angered Horan, who protested her attorneys' first attempt in December to win her release.

In his ruling on May 2, Jennings ordered her to continue outpatient treatment and ordered her psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt, a private hospital in Baltimore, to submit monthly written reports to the court.

"No one is saying she's 100 percent well," said probation officer Joffe. "To Nancy Kantarian, it has been a very long process and a very slow process. She's still in tremendous pain over what she did, and she still has to face that everyday."

Before the killings, Kantarian was described by acquaintances as "terribly normal," "devoted" and "overprotective."

But on a spring night in 1984, police arrived at the Kantarians' $400,000 home on Georgetown Pike and found 6-year-old Talia at the foot of the stairs with 32 stab wounds in her body, and 5-year-old Jamie, severely burned, in an upstairs bedroom, dying from a blow to the head, burns and smoke inhalation.

"I got mad . . . . Harry [her husband] was gone . . . . I get so frightened," Kantarian said in a statement to police that night. "I kept stabbing over and over again. I didn't want it to hurt . . . . You don't understand why I stabbed them . . . . I've always been so afraid of my kids hurting."

Horan said court officials and Kantarian's doctors have taken note of the strong support Kantarian's family showed, especially her husband and her father, John E. Heselden, a former executive of the Gannett Co., an Arlington-based media conglomerate.

The recently filed court documents also indicate she has received the support of others.

"Her employer [at the Baltimore boutique] is totally aware of her history. One of the owners has a 6-month-old baby and has felt free to allow Mrs. Kantarian to handle the baby, and on one occasion left the baby for 15 minutes with the patient," said one of the reports. "She said, 'It was a terrific emotional experience with memories of my children -- it really felt good -- and I've had several contacts with the baby and I'm very fond of the baby -- it meant a lot that [she] trusted me with the baby.' "

"The evidence is overwhelming of a doting -- almost to the point of smothering -- mother," said Horan. "This is the only killing I've ever had where we've never been able to come up with anybody who could say anything bad about her."