Clifton E. Stokes was not a man who hurried -- not since heart surgery about 10 years ago. He walked and drove and lived at an easy pace that suited him fine, said his wife, Beverly Stokes. He always assumed that people, if they needed to, would simply go around him.

But on Sunday night, as Stokes, 53, motored slowly toward home on a heavily traveled Prince George's County road, another driver refused to be patient, authorities said. In what a police spokeswoman called "one of the most brutal" road-rage incidents in memory in Prince George's, a driver with a long record of alleged assaults and drug crimes repeatedly rammed Stokes's SUV from behind until it stalled, then got out and beat Stokes to death with his fists.

An off-duty D.C. police officer who happened upon the scene ordered Phillip Hansberry, 41, to stop hitting Stokes, according to investigators. They said that Hansberry charged at the officer and that the officer fatally shot him.

Police said that Stokes, a slightly built man who had had a few minor strokes in the past year, stood no chance against the 6-foot, 200-pound Hansberry.

"I just can't understand why someone would attack him the way they did," said Beverly Stokes, 48. "I'm just really stunned. I don't know what to say. He wasn't a violent person, and he shouldn't be dead right now."

Her husband was a simple man who enjoyed simple pleasures, she said yesterday, sitting on a couch in their two-story, brick and frame townhouse on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Capitol Heights. Shortly after they returned home Sunday night from a weekend in North Carolina, Stokes, who liked to keep up with current events, insisted that he needed a newspaper, his wife recalled. Since retiring a year ago from the Giant Food warehouse in Landover, going out for newspapers was Clifton Stokes's favorite daily activity, she said.

"That was his outing -- that's what he loved doing," Beverly Stokes said, choking back tears. "He drove slow, and he knew it. He would always say that people could go around him if they had to, that he was comfortable going slowly. I just don't understand why this other person didn't go around him. Two people are dead now for no reason."

The lives of Stokes and Hansberry intersected just after 7:30 p.m. Sunday on a stretch of Marlboro Pike in Capitol Heights when Hansberry, driving a red Chevrolet pickup truck, struck the back of Stokes's black Chevy SUV, witnesses told police. They told investigators that Hansberry continued to ram Stokes's vehicle, pushing it along for several blocks after the SUV's engine quit, according to Cpl. Diane Richardson, a Prince George's County police spokeswoman.

At Marlboro Pike and Capitol Heights Boulevard, in front of a dentist's office, a community center and a cemetery, Hansberry got out of his truck and confronted Stokes, the witnesses said. In the middle of the busy, four-lane road, Hansberry began beating the frail man, an assault that witnesses described as "vicious," according to Richardson.

"It was just awful," she said yesterday, "something that didn't have to happen. It was gut-wrenching and terribly sad."

Richardson said the D.C. officer, in his personal vehicle and out of uniform, told investigators that when he arrived, Stokes was unconscious. The officer said it appeared that Hansberry was beating a lifeless body.

"The officer told [Hansberry] to stop, but he wouldn't, and then he went running toward the officer," Richardson said. The officer, who had identified himself, shot Hansberry at least once in the chest, she said.

According to court records, Hansberry, who often lived in Capitol Heights but frequently changed addresses, had been arrested on drug, assault and theft charges more than a dozen times since the 1980s, including for alleged possession of the hallucinogen PCP, which can cause violent, frenzied behavior. It was unclear last night whether he had any convictions or had served jail time.

Hansberry was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he died shortly after arrival, she said.

Stokes died in the middle of the road, his favorite Redskins sweatshirt and black dress pants soaked with blood. He was a father of a teenage girl and a grown son and daughter.

Autopsies on both men were being conducted yesterday, and it was unclear whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the fatal beating.

After Prince George's police finish their investigation of the beating and shooting, D.C. police officials will conduct a review of the conduct of the D.C. officer, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a District police spokesman. Neither police department would identify the officer yesterday.

Beverly Stokes said her husband "was only out for one thing, and that was to get his newspaper."

As he lay dead in the street, the newspaper was on the SUV's front seat, beside his cane.

Staff writers Petula Dvorak and David A. Fahrenthold and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Beating victim Clifton E. Stokes

was frail after suffering strokes.