"The party puts you on a pedestal," the prosecutor said.

"I put the party on a pedestal," Huey Newton said.

"The party puts you on a pedestal," the prosecutor said again.

"The party loves me and I return the love. You don't know what that's about," Newton replied.

Last Tuesday, at 2:28 p.m., Black Panther Huey Percy Newton took the stand before a mostly white jury and began, politely and easily, to portray himself as a self-taught black revolutionary theoretician who would not, could not have murdered a prostitute in cold blood.

Before the week ended, Tom Orloff, the Alameda County prosecutor, began trying to portray Newton as a thug.

Newton, on Tuesday: "I taught myself to read through recordings of Vincent Price reading Shakespeare -- Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear. I used to follow the text... The second book I finally mastered, after reading about 15 times, was The Republic of Plato... I was very impressed with the Socratic mission, the cave allegory of Socrates...."

Orloff, on Friday: "Was Mr. Callins beaten to a bloody pulp?" Defense objection -- Newton was acquitted on that charge last year because Preston Callins, the tailor who had said Newton beat him up, recanted and refused to testify. Overruled. "Didn't he have four skull fractures?" Objection. Overruled. "Wasn't it you that did it?" Objection. Overruled.

The way he is perceived -- as a thoughtful and persecuted political leader, or a violent and egomaniacal bully -- means everything to Newton this month.

He is accused of shooting Kathleen Smith, also black, 17 years old, on the Oakland street corner where she waited for a customer on an August night in 1974.

He is alleged to have climbed out of a steel-gray Lincoln Continental and begun arguing with this prostitute, arguing because she apparently declined to show him the proper respect. "Don't you know who I am?" he is alleged to have said.

The prosecution's case rests entirely on the testimony of two people who say they saw Newton do it. One is a 20-year-old former prostitute. The other is a pimp named Carles Buie, or Carl Buie, or Lee Buie, or Carl Walters, or Lee Bo. His character was shredded by two defense witnesses.

A third eyewitness was dropped when it was learned she apparently had been in jail on prostitution charges the night she was supposed to have seen Newton. A fourth, accused of falsely testifying to a murder to protect her lover, also was dropped.

It is a weak case for the prosecution -- and Newton has an alibi, which was presented for the first time last week.

His wife and a Los Angeles-based author have testified that he worked through the night with them while someone was shooting Kathleen Smith -- that Newton was taping his rough ideas for an essay on community control of police and a second essay on new political interpretations of Jesus' life as described in the New Testament.

So if Newton is convicted, it will have to be because the jury simply does not believe him, his alibi, or his unswerving insistence that he has once again been singled out because he is a radical black activist.

They will have to believe, as the prosecutor has argued, that Newton is a dangerous man whose outbursts have nothing to do with race. And that is why the trial has turned into a slow battle over one man's image.

Newton, short-haired and dressed in camel or black velvet jackets, speaks of leftist politics; Orloff, gaunt and bland-voiced, asks about alleged brawls.

Orloff demands details on the dates and circumstances of Newton's admission to the University of California, probing for inconsistencies in his testimony or failings in his academic work; Newton explains reactionary and revolutionary intercommunalism and thanks the people who tutored him on campus. "The professors were very kind to me."

"I had a very stormy school career," Newton said during his direct examination, facing the jury and explaining how he graduated from high school a functional illiterate.

"Black children generally were very alienated in the school system at that time. There were mostly white teachers... we were led to believe that missionaries had rescued us (in Africa) from savagery and had brought us to this country to civilize us... I was expelled or suspended from just about every school in Oakland."

There was no anger in his voice as he described the founding of the Black Panther Party 13 years ago and the 10-point program party leaders established to demand such things as full employment, adequate housing and health care, and an end to the Vietnam war.

"We wanted police to stop humiliating blacks, stop shooting little black kids in the back. I carried a shotgun and a law book," he said. (Carrying an unconcealed weapon was legal at that time in California.) "Whenever we saw the police stopping people in our community we would stand at a distance and observe..."

Newton spoke of the shooting incident 12 years ago in which he was wounded in the stomach and an Oakland police officer died -- the shooting for which Newton was convicted of manslaughter in an emotional and much publicized trial in this same courthouse.

The conviction was overturned in 1970, after Newton had served part of his sentence. Two subsequent trials ended in hung juries, and the case was dropped.

Wasn't it true, Orloff said, that the conviction was overturned only because the judge had failed to properly instruct the jury?

It was not, Newton said -- his trial had been found illegal in a lengthy appellate opinion, and he had been vindicated.

Wasn't it true, Orloff said, that in July 1974 Newton had become enraged at a police officer when the officer refused Newton's offer of a drink in a bar -- and that Newton had ordered his bodyguard to kill the officer?

It was not, Newton said. The officer had provoked him into saying something insulting, and had then poked a.357 magnum at his head, Newton said. "I was beaten so badly I had to be taken to a hospital," Newton said.

Had Newton jumped bail in 1974, resurfacing for the next three years in Cuba to flee the charges facing him?

"The party decided it was best for me to leave." There was a contract out on his life, Newton said -- pimps and prostitutes had been offered $10,000 to kill him.

Did he know many pimps and prostitutes?

"I know the streets very well," Newton said evenly. "The majority of blacks in Oakland are poor people, and live in a poor community where many illegal actions take place because of this poverty."

Back and forth it went, during the days of sometimes heated, sometimes plodding testimony and cross-examination.

Orloff suggested it was curious that Newton could not produce the tape of his conversations the night Smith died; Newton shot back, "The best record would be the bugs the police put into my wall."

The cross-examination will continue this morning, and the case is expected to go to the jury by midweek.

Newton, his confidence apparently unshaken, makes a brief appearance each day in front of the television cameras that wait for him to emerge from the elevator.

He was asked toward the end of the week whether he had anything to say about the nature of his cross-examination.

"Yes," Newton said. "I think this trial is becoming even more ridiculous." He waited for the cameras to get their shot, and then put his arm around his wife and went off to lunch.