The matter of Lindy L. Heaster, as the court records refer to it, may always be a mystery, even to Lindy Heaster herself.

"I don't want to talk about it," she said yesterday, half-smiling, from behind her front door in Woodbridge. "I don't want to be rude -- this has been too hard."

In a Prince William County courtroom Friday, Heaster, 58, a retired government secretary, was found in contempt of court for lying to a judge about buying two newspapers on a day she sat as a juror deliberating the fate of Gerardo N. Lara Sr.

The jury convicted Lara of murdering his wife, a verdict that might have stood had Heaster confessed to buying the newspapers when the judge asked her about it.

Instead, the woman who donated a kidney to her daughter, counseled grieving friends, gave time to local charities and by all accounts never once ran afoul of the law, lied.

"She still can't explain why she lied," said her attorney, Thomas Abbenante. "She just panicked."

A mistrial was declared, Heaster was found in contempt and at her sentencing Friday, Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. illustrated the consequences of juror misconduct in the county: She was ordered to pay $21,290 in restitution -- from $260 for audiovisual equipment to $3,000 in airfare for the victim's family and $7,000 for the cost of defense attorneys.

Heaster, whose pension is about $32,000 a year, was ordered to write letters of apology to each juror in the five-day trial and to perform 250 hours of community service within a year. Alston also gave Heaster a six-month jail sentence, which he suspended.

"We thought it was reasoned and appropriate under the circumstances," said Lara's attorney, Jon E. Shields, who had recognized Heaster in a 7-Eleven near the courthouse on April 15, the last day of deliberations, and noticed she had what appeared to be newspapers under her arm.

Upon seeing him, Shields said, she looked like "a deer in headlights." He requested a mistrial that morning, prompting the judge to ask Heaster about her trip to the store.

She said she bought coffee. The judge mentioned the presence of newspaper racks. "I know, but I'm not looking at newspapers," Heaster replied, according to court transcripts.

"Did you purchase one?" the judge asked.

"No," Heaster said.

Later, Shields produced a 7-Eleven video surveillance tape and a 74-cent receipt, showing that Heaster had bought The Washington Post and Potomac News. Heaster then confessed.

"What the judge wanted to make clear" in the sentencing, Shields said, "is that jury service is a very serious matter. . . . No matter how saintly this woman might have been, [the court] cannot tolerate this conduct."

Shields noted that an alternate juror had been dismissed for seeking an attorney's advice about the case.

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) said he thought the ruling was "appropriate."

"She's certainly a very nice person who probably didn't have the worst intentions," he said. "But still, she caused a mistrial, and for that reason I think the court was very concerned."

Because Heaster lied to the judge, the question of whether she even read the newspapers was not addressed. She told her attorney that she bought them thinking it was the last day of deliberations and that she'd read them after the trial ended.

In his sentencing memo to the judge, Abbenante made those and other arguments for leniency.

Heaster, who retired after 31 years of secretarial service with the Pentagon, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "had no appreciation of the severity of what she had done that morning."

Although it was no excuse, Abbenante wrote, "she is not someone who was familiar with the system or sophisticated enough to know that the purchase of the newspapers in and of itself was not the real issue."

As part of his plea for leniency, Abbenante attached letters from friends, colleagues, the daughter who received Heaster's kidney, a former county sheriff and Heaster's county supervisor.

"We all make mistakes," wrote a friend. "Some are with malice intent and others are merely mistakes of judgment under extenuating circumstances. Knowing Lindy for over thirty years, my wife and I believe her mistake was due to extenuating circumstances."

"Lindy is a wonderful person," another wrote. "I would trust her with my life."

"I am writing on behalf of my mother . . . ," the daughter who received the kidney wrote. "I know my mother is a caring, giving person."

Abbenante said he was pleased with the ruling, because the judge could have ordered jail time and because the restitution was about half of what it could have been. His client, he said, "is filled with guilt and remorse for what she did."

Although a mistrial was declared, the first trial did affect Lara. He has not been allowed to remain free on bond and is in jail pending his second trial, which is scheduled for October.