A crowd of townsfolk was waiting outside the courtroom yesterday, hoping to see D.C. Mayor Marion Barry emerge victorious in this latest confrontation with the legal system that has tried so hard to get him.

Surely the sight of that hallmark strut, with upturned chin, pursed lips and penetrating eyes would be enough to let them know that Barry was back, unbowed by a suspended sentence, perhaps, unbossed and ready to continue his campaign for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.

Instead, they were met by stone-faced U.S. marshals motioning them to clear a path for U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens and his assistants, who marched magnificently, seven abreast, along the long courtroom corridor.

Barry had just been sentenced by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, punishment for his conviction in August on a drug possession charge.

The mayor of the nation's capital was going to jail.

"Oh Lord," cried Maggie Miller, as she collapsed into the arms of her friend, Florence Smith.

"Don't let 'em see you cry," Smith said, hoisting Miller back to her feet. "That's how they get their jollies."

Smith then shouted at the U.S. attorney: "Barry will serve on the city council from a prison cell."

"There will be none of that," a U.S. marshal replied, pointing the antenna of his walkie-talkie at her.

"Get out of my face," Smith protested. Shouting at Stephens again, she added, "It's the people's decision. Not yours."

In this caldron of criminal justice called a courthouse, the case of the United States vs. Marion S. Barry had once again come to a boil. Tempers erupted as passionately yesterday as they had 10 months ago, when he was ambushed in a Wild West-style FBI sting.

"Barry can do six months on his head if we stand by him," Miller persisted.

Cora Wilds, Barry's campaign press secretary, came out of the courtroom, grim and stoic. A curt smile cracked on her face when she saw the crowd of Barry supporters.

Smith chanted, "We'll all do six months together." Wilds flashed a thumbs up, and the crowd hung tough for Barry to emerge.

"How can the same judge who let Michael Deaver off on three felony charges send Barry to jail?" asked John Crutchfield, a delivery man whose courthouse call had been stopped cold by news of the Barry sentence.

From the crowd came an indignant choral response: "Deaver is white."

"We don't want violence," Maggie Miller said, wiping her eyes and muffling her sobs. "We just want Mr. Barry to come out so we can let him know we are praying for him. This is a time of healing."

Suddenly, Miller noticed that her friend Florence Smith was now embroiled in a shoving match with a television station news aide.

"Please don't fight, Florence," Miller sobbed. Smith replied defiantly, "I'm a fighter, like Marion. Not a crier."

This would have been a good time for Barry to appear, to quell the crowd, maybe even hold a prayer vigil, the way he had after beating 13 of the 14 drug charges against him.

But whether Barry was present or not, his most intense supporters -- perhaps unfairly called "Kool-Aids" by his detractors because of their Jim Jones-style loyalty -- were committed to him.

More than a mayor, Barry symbolized a black man who could take a licking by the system and keep on ticking. They would vote for "Marion in Marion," said one, referring to the federal penitentiary in Illinois, if it came to that.

Barry's lawyer, R. Kenneth Mundy, is planning to make sure that it does not come to that by appealing the case. But when he left the courtroom yesterday, he looked beat. His face was reddened, and his hat so loosely cocked that it appeared that it had been knocked lopsided rather than deliberately set on his head.

When Stephens and his entourage had left the courtroom, the doors had flung open as if Wyatt Earp and company were exiting a saloon after winning a barroom brawl.

By contrast, Mundy and those who came out with him were dejected, sullen and grim.

Anita Bonds, Barry's campaign manager, strolled slowly down the corridor, raising hopes among the crowd that Barry would be out soon.

Then Lurma Rackley, the press secretary who was always seen at Barry's side during his drug and perjury trial, finally left the courtroom without him. To those well-wishers in the crowd, Rackley could say only what they all suspected by now.

"He won't be coming out," she said.

They had finally gotten Marion Barry.