At last, the sweet smell of justice.

After 3 1/2 years, the five young men who once upon a time pleaded guilty to the gang-rape of a 39-year-old woman in Holbrook, Mass., (the pleas were later withdrawn) were finally punished for a crime. Last Wednesday they were handed a two- year suspended sentence and ordered to pay damages for assaulting the woman's car.

You may ask: how are these men finally brought down by the harsh hammer of justice? For those who have forgotten the details of this nationally publicized case, a brief chronology:

On Jan. 23, 1980, a group of young men met the woman in a bar. This woman, forever after referred to as "a former beauty queen," went with them to a nearby wooded area. So did her car. There, five of the men maintained, she offered to have sex with them all for $200; she maintained that they raped her.

They also, everyone agrees, jumped up and down on her car. At the end, the bruised auto was rolled over an embankment. The bruised woman was left naked in the January night.

A sixth man, who later testified against his friends, may have saved the woman's life by returning to the scene and driving the woman to a nearby fire station.

On Oct. 5, 1981, in a plea bargain, the five men agreed to plead guilty to rape. In return, the judge--who called this "a consensual sexual adventure that went off track"--gave them a suspended sentence and $500 fines to be paid in $5 weekly installments. Four days of public outrage later, the judge revoked the suspended sentences, their guilty pleas were withdrawn and the case was ordered to trial.

After many legal machinations that included one trip to the U.S. Supreme Court and another to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and a mistrial, the five went to trial in April of this year. This time they pleaded innocent to rape and to malicious damage to the woman's personal property.

On June 17, they were found innocent of damaging the woman but--hosanna and pass the scales of justice--guilty of damaging the car. Last week, they found out that crime doesn't pay.

Well, what have we learned from the successful prosecution of this assault on a car? That it's easier to convict men of battering a chassis if the chassis is made of tin?

There are several things to be considered by the legal profession, especially by those who have the misfortune to be on the side of a woman in a rape case. Here is one of them: it is better to have a car as a client than a woman.

This car, unlike this woman, was not penalized for being unable to testify at the trial. Nor did anyone in the courtroom bring up the automobile's private history or reputation, although it is suspected that the car had once received bruises for which it was at fault. There are even rumors that the car once plunged willfully into a fender-bender.

In addition, cars cannot be judged harshly for frequenting a bar, although occasionally they guzzle gas. A car is rarely remembered as "a former beauty queen," even though it may once have been the star of a local showroom somewhere.

Moreover, jurors do not generally care about the appearance of automobiles: what was the color of the seat covers? Was it wearing a see- through sun roof? Was it a racy foreign number? It is rare that a Mercedes 450-SL is suspected of enticing vandals.

It should also be noted that this particular car was a perfect client because it had been totaled. Who could dispute that it was the victim? There was the dead body.

What is the moral to this tale? Sex muddies the legal waters. If five men had done nothing more than leave a bruised and naked woman alone in the middle of the January night, I'm convinced they would have received sterner punishment.

Stay tuned until next October, when the famous New Bedford rape case goes to trial. They'll probably get the guys for ruining the felt on the pool table.

Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company.