Last year, James Jerome Williams was caught allegedly burglarizing a downtown Washington law office by an off-duty D.C. police officer who shot him in the neck. The confrontation was recorded on a hidden security camera, and although the U.S. attorney's office maintained that the shooting was an accident, the tape was not released for public viewing.

Then Tuesday, a day after Williams died, WUSA (Channel 9) television reporter Bruce Johnson obtained a copy of the confidential recording, and now it is clearer why some law enforcement personnel wanted it kept secret.

Not only does the tape show that police Sgt. William C. Rollins used his service revolver to intimidate Williams -- which violates standard police procedure -- it also shows that Rollins did not tell the truth when he claimed that a struggle had ensued and that his gun went off accidentally when he stumbled over a chair.

An enhanced version of the tape shows that Rollins commanded Williams to lie down on the floor, but suddenly grabbed him with one hand and jammed a cocked pistol into his neck with the other.

That's when the gun went off.

After learning that the shooting had been filmed, Rollins changed his story, saying that he thought Williams had reached for a gun in his pocket. Still, a review of the film indicates it is highly questionable whether Williams had reached into his pocket. Police reports state that he did not have a gun.

A D.C. police department internal investigation of the shooting concluded that Rollins had not been provoked by Williams, as he had claimed, and that the shooting was unjustified and also had "criminal overtones." The findings were sent to the U.S. attorney's office with an affidavit for Rollins' arrest.

To Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr.'s astonishment, the U.S. attorney's office refused to sign the affidavit. And when the police department's internal affairs division began its own administrative action, Rollins, a 21-year veteran, simply retired from the department.

Weighing in the U.S. attorney's favor is an apparent ignorance of the law by some residents who condemn the slain man.

"If he hadn't been burglarizing the office, he wouldn't have been shot," one radio talk show caller said.

But the law does not work that way.

Even in a private home, self-defense is the only justification for shooting an intruder. One should expect -- moreover, demand -- that a police officer, especially one on an unauthorized stakeout in a commercial establishment, uphold the law by doing his job, which is to make arrests, not act as judge and jury.

Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Gary Hankins notes that police officers have been killed while arresting burglary suspects, and that police can take no chances. But if that kind of fear exists, then more police officers should be assigned to such stakeouts.

Because of the suspicious manner in which this case has been handled, the racial overtones stand out: A white cop shoots a black suspect; a white U.S. attorney opposes a black chief of police.

But at the funeral for James Williams yesterday, those in attendance chose to focus less on the controversy surrounding his death than on the kind of life he led.

The preacher, the Rev. Dewitt Butler, said that he did not even know how Williams had died, and some who eulogized him referred only to his "untimely accident." The funeral program said he departed from this world after a "long illness."

Some family members said that may have been a reference to his stay at a mental hospital at age 15, or even to his prior conviction for burglary.

On March 7, 1986, Williams, who had studied computer science at Virginia State University in Lynchburg, entered the Marshall B. Coyne Building at 15th and M streets NW by operating a push-button coded security lock. According to police, he then disengaged the alarm system at the Haines & Miller law offices and began ransacking drawers in search of petty cash. Pinkerton's Inc., a security firm Rollins worked for when off duty, had been hired to stake out the building because of similar burglaries.

As Williams' mother, six brothers, three sisters, stepfather, grandparents, aunts and uncles wept, Butler simply lamented that nobody was able to intervene to steer the young man clear of such a deadly confrontation.

"All people have to do is call me sometimes and say, 'My son is in trouble,' and sometimes I can call the DA and say, 'Give the boy a break,' " Butler said. "But after death, I can't call God and say look after him now. No sir, you have to do that when the blood is still running warm in the veins."