Mary Fitzpatrick could barely contain her happiness - and her surprise - as she came down the ramp at National Airport yesterday to find about 50 reporters and photographers waiting.

The 31-year-old convicted murderer, not scheduled to be paroled from her life term in a Georgia prison until April 11, was once again free - this time at the direct request of President and Mrs Carter.

The Carters want her to resume her role as governess of their 9-year-old daughter, Amy, a job Fitzpatrick held during the four years Carter was governor of Georgia, from 1971 to 1975.

"Amy was delighted," said one of Mrs Carter's press aides.

There are some differences this time, though.

When Fitzpatrick was detailed as a trusty from the Fulton County Jail to work at the Georgia governor's mansion, she had to return to the jail every night. She also served wihout pay. Inmates serving at the governor's mansion were the only ones in the Georgia work-release program who didn't get paid.

"That particular assignment was considered a very selective and highly sought-after assignment," said Col. William Lowe, Georgia's deputy commissioner for offender administration. "They were screened very thoroughly before they went there. We ran psychological tests on them."

In her new White House assignment, though, Fitzpatrick will be paid $6,004 a year, plus three meals a day and uniforms, the White House said, as well as retirement benefits. Her salary will come from the White House payroll. She will have a room on the third floor of the executive mansion.

In addition to caring for Amy, she will be expected to help with the housework and care for the baby that Chip and Caron Carter expect March 5. Her salary, the White House said, is standard for White House maids.

"I was excited, real excited, Fitzpatrick said after her flight from Atlanta. "I just don't beleive this happening to me."

Male and female inmates of Georgia prisons have worked at the governor's mansion and the other state buildings for many years. But Fitzpatrick's position is exceptional, according to one Georgia prison official.

"She's a very, very warm person, and kids take to her very well," said Pat Ford-Roegner, director of the Atlanta Women's Work Release Center, where Fitzpatrick was housed for two years before leaving for the White House yesterday.

"The Carters know Mary very well and they just think she's a super person," said Mrs Carter press secretary, Mary Hoyt.

The Carters visited Fitzpatrick at the Center twice last year and twice the year before. She has two sons, Lonnie, 16, and David, 11, who stayed with her sister in Atlanta. They will be coming to Washington, but "not until summertime," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick is described as a model prisoner by Georgia authorities, who gave her a three-day pass last month so she could attend Carter's inauguration and babysit with Amy while her parents attended inaugural parties.

She was sentenced to life in prison when she pleaded guilty to killing John Bynum with a pistol in Lumpkin, Ga., on April 11, 1970.

Stewart County Sheriff Bob Mitehell said Fitzpatrick came to the aid of a woman friend who got into a lover's quarrel with Bynum.

White House press secretary Jody Powell said prisoners sentenced to life are eligible for parole in seven years, under Georgia law, and are often reprived for work or educational at opportunities within 90 days of the parole date.

"The main thing that qualified it was the letter from the White House and her past record, said RobHaworth, executive director of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.

Another official said four of the five parole board members were either appointed or reappointed by Carter when he was governor.

Experts on the nation's prisons say programs like Georgia's are common. Georgia officials said seven trusties are currently working at the governor's mansion for the family of Gov. George Bushee.

About 250 inmates are released every day throughout the state to work or attend school, officials said.

Wednesday night Fitzpatrick's fellow inmates gave her a farewellparty.

"It made me feel so good I almost cried," she said with tears in her eyes during an interview the next day. "I feel so loved by the women here. They are such beautiful people."