Due to an editing error, an article Tuesday about Edmund Perry, a Harlem youth fatally shot by plainclothes policeman Lee Van Houten, said Van Houten had been walking the beat as a decoy for muggers. He was part of a patrol investigating a rash of larcenies from doctors' cars at St. Luke's Hospital.

In the heart of Harlem, past stumbling junkies and jobless kids hanging out, past storefront smells of fried chicken and cheap liquor, amid wailing police-car sirens, is 165 West 114th Street. Up that tenement's dark and broken steps is Apt. 3A.

In the cluttered living room, between iron-barred windows, hang two elementary-school graduation photographs -- high as if above an altar -- of two black boys in academic robes.

Standing there, Veronica Perry touched a Bible on a table below the pictures and cried because her baby, 17-year-old Edmund, is dead from a policeman's bullet; because her other son, 19-year-old Jonah, is under indictment and facing a prison sentence; and because she had gloried in her belief that they had escaped Harlem.

Edmund graduated with honors from Phillips Exeter Academy, the renowned New England preparatory school, and planned to attend Stanford University this fall. Jonah attended Westminster prep school and is an engineering student at Cornell University.

But on June 12, a humid, gritty, Harlem summer night, they were back in the city, where Ed-mund was about to start a summer job at aWall Street brokerage house. According to police, the two mugged a plainclothes policeman, who shot Edmund in the stomach. Jonah ran, police said, leaving his brother fatally wounded.

Now the Harlem community, the Perrys' neighbors on 114th Street, the police, the mayor, the district attorney and the faculty and students at Exeter, where friends say Edmund excelled but did not conform, are trying to solve an emotional mystery:

Did one of the ghetto's brightest children turn out to be only a better educated mugger? Or is his death a tragic reminder that being one of Harlem's best and Exeter-educated is no guarantee of escape from the mean streets?

The question will not be answered in court, but the way Edmund's life ended has enraged his family and confounded his community.

According to the police, this case holds no larger truths. The two brothers, police say, had lost a bet playing on a basketball game but had no money with which to pay up by taking the winning players to the movies. They decided to mug someone for the money, and "someone" turned out to be plainclothes police officer Lee Van Houten.

Mary deBourbon, a spokesman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, said 23 witnesses told the grand jury that they had seen two men attack Van Houten, who is neither charged nor indicted in the incident. He has returned to duty after several weeks' leave and refused requests for interviews.

"It's a terrible thing for a parent to have had this happen," Morgenthau said. "No parent wants to believe their son or daughter has gotten into serious trouble, but regrettably, that is what the facts show."

City officials say that Van Houten had not used his weapon in his two years on the force and that the Civilian Complaint Review Board filed no charges against him. Inspector Robert F. Burke describes Van Houten, who lives in suburban Rockland County, as "an outstanding young policeman" who had won a commendation for apprehending a gunman without using his weapon.

Across town, there is another point of view.

"People need to focus on the real issue here. A 24-year-old officer who is trained and skilled in apprehending people felt it necessary to kill a 17-year-old unarmed youth," said Edmund Perry's mother, Veronica. "A white officer felt that way about my black child.

"If Ed was trying to attack him, why not bring him in? Who is Lee Van Houten to be judge, jury and executioner for a mugging? He is nothing but a 24-year-old white boy from the suburbs."

Perry's bitterness is shared in New York's black community. A recent poll by the New York Daily News and WABC-TV showed that 56 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics felt that it was "common practice" for police to "rough up suspects illegally." Only 18 percent of whites agreed.

In one widely publicized case recently, five white police officers from the 106th Precinct in Queens were charged with using a 50,000-volt electric stun gun to torture black and Hispanic teen-agers accused of selling small amounts of marijuana.

In another, six white transit officers were indicted in the death of Michael Stewart, 25, a black who died in custody after police caught him writing on a subway wall. Forty eyewitnesses reported that the officers beat, kicked and "hogtied" Stewart.

Both cases came after the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, 66, a black grandmother shot by police who said she was threatening them with a knife as she ignored an eviction order. According to testimony before the grand jury, one blast from the shotgun tore off the woman's knife hand, but the officer fired a second, fatal shot. The officer was not indicted.

Bernhard Goetz, a white subway rider, was not indicted initially in the shooting of four black teen-age passengers who said they were panhandling, not threatening him, when they approached him on a train last December. Several black politicians said Morgenthau reacted to public pressure, not the shooting of young blacks, when he impaneled a second grand jury that indicted Goetz for attempted murder.

"After Ed Perry, Goetz, Michael Stewart . . . , people are saying that, the next time a policeman shoots a young black kid or old black person, the cop will just end up dead," said the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The deep division between black youths and the city is reflected in an incident reported in January by black Olympic boxing champion and movie actor Mark Breland. He told police that, shortly after he boarded an elevator in a midtown office building with a white man and a white woman, the man pulled a gun and held it at his side next to Breland's leg until Breland alighted at the 11th floor. "If I had sneezed, he would have shot me," Breland told The New York Times in February.

"There is a fear of young black kids in this city that is epidemic," said lawyer William Kunstler, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Now they are like outlaws in the old English legal system. They have no protection under the law because the community fears them and that fear is transmitted to the cops, to the D.A., to the mayor . . . . It says, do whatever you want to them but rein them in. Only when there is a really outrageous case, like Michael Stewart or Edmund Perry, do you get some outcry."

Edmund Perry was shot near Morningside Park, a no-man's land separating the Columbia University area of Morningside Heights from the "valley" below -- the Harlem ghetto. At night, the park is a haven for muggers, and Van Houten, in civilian clothes, was acting as a decoy.

When Edmund died, more than a thousand persons attended a vigil, and officials, especially in the black community, expressed anguish.

But the grand jury investigation appeared to establish that Van Houten had been attacked. Moreover, several residents of the 114th Street neighborhood reportedly told police that Jonah Perry returned to the neighborhood the night of the shooting and proclaimed, "We got a DT," street slang for "detective."

The New York Daily News reported that "angry relatives of Jonah Perry Jr. were the first to inform police" that he was at the scene of his brother's shooting. Still, the idea of two prep school students mugging someone has not been easy for his friends and family to accept.

Veronica Perry had been intensely involved in her sons' education. She was president of their elementary school's parent-teachers association, is a member of the local school board and is active in her church. She set herself as a model for the boys by enrolling in a community college to get her degree.

She had help from about 50 relatives, including the boys' grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom live in the same block of 114th Street. Closed to traffic, it is a Harlem oasis filled with children playing under watchful eyes of mothers and grandmothers. More help came from the Rev. Preston Washington of Memorial Baptist Church, who baptized the boys, and from teachers who took special interest in the Perrys.

"It is totally out of character for these boys to be involved in any crime," Washington said.

John Harney, Exeter's admissions director, decribed Edmund Perry as "articulate, thoughtful and ambitious," a second-string varsity football player active in all phases of school life and never involved in racial trouble.

But Jackie Hayes, 17, who graduated from Exeter in Perry's class, said many of Perry's fellow students "thought he had an attitude problem. Eddie didn't try to mold himself into the model Exonian . . . . He maintained his identity as a black kid from New York."

"Maybe it seemed to some people he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder," said his roommate, Malcolm Stephens, 18, a black from New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant community.

Perry did not get along with many faculty members, Stephens said, "but it was more like he was out of one world and in another he didn't belong in . . . . He had a hard time dealing with the preppy types who ignored and were unsympathetic to the world he came from."

But Stephens added that Perry associated more often with whites than did Stephens.

Next to Perry's senior yearbook picture was published his own expression of his problems with Exeter: "It's a pity we part on less than a friendly basis. Work to adjust yourself to a changing world, as will I."

Stephens says he is unsure whether Perry would have mugged someone. "It could happen because of the way things are in New York, he and the cop could have gotten into something," Stephens said, "but I've never seen Ed in a fist fight. He's not a physical person."

Kennitt Marshall, one of Edmund's Exeter classmates, said he has been amused by coverage of the case because he feels that "since Ed is so clean, they've been trying to make Jonah out to be a bad guy -- I laughed when I read that the police said they told the cop, 'Give it up,' while they were mugging him. They've never used that kind of language."

Veronica Perry agrees, saying she does not believe the police description of the attack on Van Houten. Dr. Sidney B. Weinberg, a Long Island forensic pathologist who observed Edmund's autopsy at the family's request, reports that the wounds were "downward and backward," not consistent with the police report that Van Houten shot from a prone position.

Nor does Veronica Perry believe that Jonah was at the scene of the shooting or left his brother to die. He was with his grandmother, she says. Jonah has said that he went back to his block after playing basketball with his brother and that later, as he walked toward the park, he was told by "a dude" he does not know that his brother had been shot.

Jonah went to the hospital, where police asked him to accompany them in a search for the unidentified man, but family friends advised him not to go, according to police.

"The feeling is that people from Harlem shouldn't be over" near the park, Veronica Perry said. "If we are over there, they presume that we're up to no good. In the 1980s, that's nonsense, especially for my son: He had been to France, all over Europe, to Barcelona, and I'm supposed to tell him he couldn't go a block away from home . . . . He's gone to Spain and met rich white folks but can't go to Morningside Heights because these folks are more prejudiced."

Anger rose in Perry's face as she recalled that police have been questioning neighborhood teen-agers about her sons' behavior, apparently seeking evidence that the two were not the hard-working prep school graduates that their records indicate. She asked whether Van Houten could stand the same inquiries about his character.

"Did the police give him a psychological test?" she asked. "How did he come out of his training? . . . What kind of person is he in his community? How does he treat his mother?"

Jonah Perry returned to Cornell last week to finish an incomplete course from last semester, and his mother said he will return to school this fall. But if he is convicted on attempted robbery and assault charges, he could be sentenced to seven years in prison, although there is no mandatory minimum and he could receive a probationary sentence instead. The district attorney's office says his case may be tried in November.

"They have to prove my son's guilty," Veronica Perry said. "He's innocent until proven guilty. Let them do that . . . .[Right now] I'm afraid for my son's life in this city . . . . We keep somebody with him all the time."

In the Bible below the photos of her little boys, Veronica Perry keeps "the letters." They have come since the shooting, about a dozen.

Among them is one that reads: "I would just like to tell you that I agree that this was a racial incident -- your son mugged the cop because he was white. Im glad your one son was killed and only wish that the other nigger was killed too . . . ."

Why does she keep letters like that in the Bible?

"The Lord will provide," she said. "The Lord will explain. He's all I have left to bless me."