First there was that summer night in 1978. A young Maryland housewife was abducted, robbed and raped at gunpoint and left in the dark, boiler room of a Southeast Washington apartment building.

She identified the man she suspected of being her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in jail. But the conviction was overturned and two years later he was back on the street.

She testified at a second trial, but the jury could not reach a verdict. The third trial was scheduled for last week. But by then, she said, she had had enough. She could not go back to the courthouse.

The victim said she could not undergo a personal trial jeopardy and testify again about what she says is the worst night of her life.

"I was scared to death," she said. "I was shaking. He [the prosecutor] wanted me to come up there a third time. I told him I wasn't coming up there. I don't want to go through that [any] more. They ask you a lot of embarassing questions. Anybody can come in. I was scared."

The U.S. Attorney's office, she said, claimed it sympathized with her plight, but informed her that ther testimony was absolutely necessary for another trial to he held. But the woman declined.

As a result, three days ago, the suspect in the case, a 26-year-old Southeast Washington man, was freed and the rape charge dropped.

The woman, who agreed to be interviewed but not identified, said she did not doubt that the man police had arrested and she had identified in the lineup was the man who had raped her -- she had been so close to him for so many terrifying minutes, she said, that she always would remember his face.

But she did doubt her ability to go through another trial, to testify as she had twice previously, in the face of the defendant's stare.

"I was scared," she recalled of those previous trials. "He [the defendant] was looking straight at me, like he could see through me. But I let it stop me this time.

"I don't think he needs [any] more chances to tell the truth. He had a gun. He let me know it was loaded. He showed me the bullets. I didn't think I was going to get out alive."

So on Wednesday, the day the trial was scheduled to start, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens told presiding Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I, that the government was dismissing the case.

No reasons was stated in court and Stephens declined to comment on the case. But law enforcement sources familiar with rape trials said prosecutors often must weigh a victim's plight, particularly in deciding whether to retry a rape case.

"Rape is a more personified violence," said one source. "The victim must face jurors who are going to question her integrity. If you get shot, there is physical injury jurors can see or understand. They are less likely to question the victim's credibility. In rape, jurors project their own values -- maybe she deserved it, maybe she asked for it. Maybe she has an ax to grind. In a rape case, the victim is always on trial."

The rape victim, an unemployed mother of four, said she has now moved out of the Washington area to a town in Virginia.

The defendant's attorney, John W. King, said his client was elated to learn the case was dismissed. "She spent two or three years with this up in the air," King said. "By the same token, my client spent a year or two in jail . . . This is the system we have. It is not perfect." a

According to court records, the woman told police she had been waiting in a car outside a friend's apartment in Southeast Washington late on night after a party when a gun-wielding assailant approached the car and ordered her out.

The woman said she had no money, according to court documents, but the man said he wanted to rape her. He forced her to walk a nearby boiler room, threw a blanket on the floor and raped her. She screamed but was not found. The man fled, taking her pocketbook, which contained some cash and food stamps. The woman ran screaming for help.

The woman said she previously had been the victim of a purse snatching and a mugging, but the police did not capture a suspect either time. Thus she was psychologically prepared to testify at the first trial of the man charged with her rape.

It was that rape conviction that later was overturned by the trial judge, who found that the suspect's lawyer had represented him incompetently. [The suspect had been acquitted of an armed robbery charge.] Later, attorney King was appointed to defend the man, and the second trial ended in a hung jury.

Defense attorneys in rape cases anticipate the woman's fear of undergoing intense questioning about the most intimate details of the rape itself, and try to use that to their advantage.

"You have no choice," said one male attorney who had successfully defended half a dozen accused rapists in Superior Court but declined to be identified. h"Sometimes the woman is going to break down. She will become disoriented and embarrassed. That brings in the reasonable doubt, and that brings in the 'not guilty' [verdicts]. I've got to do it. I'm not out to get her, but I am out to get him off."

As for the woman in the 1978 case, she said she is beginning to put her life together again in Virginia. "In different places," she said, "you get treated differently. If that had happened in Maryland, he would have gotten time. In D.C., they let them out . . . I ain't coming up there any time soon."