District prosecutors reduced murder charges yesterday against two young men accused in the death of Helen Foster-El, the Southeast Washington grandmother hit by stray bullets June 21 at East Capitol Dwellings.

London Marquis Ford and Jimmy J. Shelton, both 18, initially were charged with first-degree, premeditated murder, but the U.S. attorney's office lowered the charges to second-degree murder after a two-day hearing in D.C. Superior Court. A first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 30 years to life in prison. A second-degree murder conviction could lead to a life term, but there is no mandatory minimum sentence.

Judge Henry F. Greene ordered the two men held without bond pending their Sept. 22 trial. Prosecutors are free in the meantime to seek a first-degree murder indictment from a grand jury, but they have not decided on a strategy, office spokesman Channing D. Phillips said.

A third suspect, Derrick Terell Jackson, 19, also will be held without bond because he is considered a danger to the community, Greene said, rejecting a defense request that Jackson be placed in a halfway house to await trial.

Jackson initially was charged with murder, but the charge was downgraded to carrying a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol without a license. The charge is based on the account of a publicly unidentified witness who allegedly saw Jackson open fire behind the 100 block of 56th Place SE.

Foster-El had no connection to the argument that resulted in her death. Prosecutors contend that she died during a gun battle sparked by Ford's return--with a .38-caliber handgun--to the scene of an earlier confrontation. Ford and Shelton told police that someone else fired first.

Police found three 9mm bullets and 19 casings. When they returned to East Capitol Dwellings on June 22 to search further, the yellow crime scene tape was gone, and the area had been vacuumed by D.C. Housing Authority workers, police Detective McKinley Williams testified this week.