Jose Witherspoon's nearly fatal mugging triggered 30 minutes of mayhem in the Capitol View section of Southeast Washington in 1996, leaving two people wounded and three killed in two separate incidents.

Although police initially thought there was no link between the attacks, a tipster, a statement from accomplices and two bullets lodged inside Witherspoon ultimately linked the attacks to a common gunman.

Lydell Banks, 22, is now standing trial in D.C. Superior Court, charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the July 19, 1996, slayings of Donya Katrina Davis, 23, Constance Simms, 40, and Karen Coleman, 36, inside a crack house in the 100 block of 57th Place SE. He also is charged with assault with intent to kill and various weapons offenses in the shooting of Leon Brown, 35, who survived the crack house attack. The trial, which began Thursday, resumes today.

During his opening statement before Judge Nan R. Shuker, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Zeidenberg laid out for the jury an intricate series of events that the government contends started about 9:30 p.m. that July night with the robbery and shooting of Witherspoon, 40, in an alley near 54th Street SE and East Capitol Street. Witherspoon testified that he was shot twice in the back of the neck as he knelt in the alley with his hands behind his head.

Zeidenberg told the jury that Witherspoon lied to his robbers, telling them he had no money. When $5 was discovered in Witherspoon's pocket, Banks shot him. Banks, who pleaded guilty in April 1997 to being the shooter in the robbery, is serving 20 years for that crime. Three accomplices also pleaded guilty in the case and are serving six to 20 years.

After shooting Witherspoon, Zeidenberg said, Banks made his way to the 100 block of 57th Place SE. He entered a crack house there, mortally wounded the women and shot Brown five times as he knelt against a wall with his hands clasped behind his head, the prosecutor said.

A tipster told detectives that she suspected a relative had been involved in Witherspoon's shooting. The relative gave police a statement and named three accomplices, including Banks. The other three robbers identified Banks as the shooter, and he was arrested four months after the robbery.

As police investigated both crimes, Zeidenberg said, Banks decided to plead guilty in the Witherspoon case to throw police off his trail in the triple slaying.

"At the time, Lydell Banks did not know he was a suspect in the triple homicide. He did not know police were trying to link him" to the slayings of the women, Zeidenberg told the jury. "Almost immediately he had second thoughts. He went back to the D.C. jail and asked [an inmate] whether police can match bullets from different crime scenes."

That is exactly what authorities had done. And Banks's guilty plea in the Witherspoon shooting bought investigators time to put together a case against Banks in the killings.

Witherspoon, who testified Thursday, told the jury that one day, about four months after he was shot, he was mowing his lawn when he coughed up one of two bullets doctors had left in him the night of the incident. "Something went pi-onnnng, and I looked down and there was a bullet in my hand," Witherspoon said.

He turned the bullet over to D.C. police detective Todd Amis. The second bullet was removed during surgery at Georgetown University Hospital a few days later.

Authorities compared the bullets taken from Witherspoon with slugs taken from the crack house and the bodies of the women. Tests showed they were all .32-caliber bullets with markings indicating they had been fired from the same weapon.

Police then used Banks's own words to charge him. By admitting during his guilty plea in the Witherspoon shooting that he, and he alone, had shot Witherspoon, Banks had tied himself directly to the weapon believed to have been used in the triple slayings.

Defense attorney Douglas B. Evans moved to have Banks's statement in the Witherspoon attack suppressed during the murder trial. Shuker will rule on the motion today.

CAPTION: Lydell Banks, who pleaded guilty in a 1996 robbery and shooting, is on trial in three subsequent slayings.