Keith Allen Green, the St. Mary's County man convicted in August of second-degree murder in the strangulation of 13-year-old Claudia Pickeral, maintained his innocence yesterday as he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry for their loss. I didn't do it. I will continue to struggle [to] prove I didn't do it," Green told Prince George's Circuit Court Judge G.R. Hovey Johnson as members of the girl's family wept. "I have never, ever hurt anybody, and I didn't this time."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that," Johnson replied. "You refuse to take responsibility for your own actions. . . . If you think the court believes you, you are sadly mistaken."

The 30-year sentence is the maximum possible under Maryland law for second-degree murder. Green's trial was moved to Prince George's County because of doubts that an untainted jury could be seated in St. Mary's County.

Green, 35, of Avenue, was convicted in August in the death of Claudia, a Leonardtown Middle School student who was assaulted and strangled as she walked home from the school bus stop Feb. 19, 1997. Her body was left in a ditch.

Green lived next door to the girl's family on Longview Beach, a community in Bushwood of about 200 modest vacation cottages overlooking the picturesque Wicomico River.

Yesterday, the girl's mother and stepfather, Claudia and Michael Thompson, read a statement in court about how their daughter's death has affected them.

"We have a great emptiness in our hearts. Part of us is gone, buried with Boo Boo," Claudia Thompson said, using her pet nickname for her daughter.

Michael Thompson later in the day said that he and other family members went to Claudia's grave in Leonardtown and left a purple chrysanthemum, Claudia's favorite color.

The girl's mother said she was glad that Green received the maximum sentence, "but I still don't have her," she said, weeping.

The girl's slaying--St. Mary's State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz called it "the brutal killing"--shattered the tiny community where Claudia lived with her mother, 33, a school aide, her stepfather, 36, a warehouse worker, and half sister, Camisha, 7.

Fritz argued during Green's trial that Claudia had been walking home that warm February day when Green had grabbed her and forced her to a nearby thicket of trees, attempting to assault her sexually. When she fought him off, Fritz argued, Green became enraged and strangled her. The state presented a mostly circumstantial case that focused on Green's behavior in the hours after Claudia's death.

Although Green was identified as a suspect soon after the death, the investigation into the slaying bogged down amid allegations of police incompetence and racism.

Disgusted by what they saw as a lack of police response to their daughter's slaying, the Thompsons and other Longview Beach residents formed the Justice for Claudia Committee, whose members marched, organized candlelight vigils and wrote letters to the local newspaper.

During the investigation, Green's home was burned down by an arsonist. A minister was charged in connection with the fire and acquitted. Green's best friend, who was indicted on a perjury charge, complained that he was being pressured to lie about the case and to say that Green had admitted killing the girl.

Fritz said yesterday that Claudia's murder and its aftermath caused "a tearing of the fabric of the community that will take years to come to grips with and will take years to mend."

CAPTION: Keith Allen Green insisted at his sentencing yesterday that he is innocent of the killing.