On the morning of July 7, a young couple carried an unconscious baby wrapped in a towel to a stark gray firehouse on 14th and Newton streets NW. Firefighters tried to revive the 16-pound infant, but it was too late: Porsche Medley died about a half-hour later.

The father told firefighters that his 8-month-old daughter had fallen. The medical examiner concluded that Porsche had died from "blunt force trauma to the head." Police seized a heavy-buckled belt, which they believed to be the instrument, according to police sources.

Later that day, D.C. police charged her 28-year-old father, Michael Curtis Johnson, with second-degree murder. Johnson has pleaded not guilty. The question of his innocence or guilt awaits his trial in Superior Court, but other questions have been raised in another part of the courthouse, the family division.

There, people shuddered when they heard about Porsche's death because her family, particularly Michael Johnson, was already well known to them. The family court had placed Johnson's 2-year-old son in a foster home last fall after Johnson admitted that he had beaten the child with a belt.

Since then, Johnson had been under scrutiny by the city's elaborate system designed to protect abused children. Officials believed that he was making real progress in learning how to be a good parent, that the system, for all its flaws, was working. Judge Nan Huhn believed things were going well enough that she had given Johnson custody of his teen-aged girlfriend -- the mother of their daughter, Porsche.

"When I heard the fact that this child had died, it was just a horrible, terrible feeling," Huhn said last week.

Huhn did not make her decision alone: At least a half-dozen experts -- including defense lawyers, city prosecutors, court social workers and a psychiatrist -- had agreed that Michael Johnson could be rehabilitated as a parent. The law encourages family courts to try to rehabilitate abusive parents and reunite them with their children.

Citing her 15 years of work in the field of child protection and her love for children, the judge said that regardless of whether Johnson is found responsible, Porsche's death remains deeply troubling.

"I have . . . lived with the fear that I could do something or make a decision that could end up this way. All of us in the system live constantly with that fear. In that sense it is a nightmare."

Huhn and others in the family court system know that inevitably they are able to see only snapshots of a family's behavior, often missing the larger picture. To them, Johnson appeared to be trying to change his behavior, sincerely struggling to break what his court records told them was the abusive cycle of his own upbringing.

Neighbors and family members who knew Johnson had a different view. They say they frequently heard the sounds of beatings and cries from his apartment.

Said one court official familiar with the case: "Clearly, the neighbors knew more than we knew."

Judge Ricardo Urbina, head of the family division, said that Huhn made decisions in what she believed was the best interests of the parties before her.

However Johnson's case comes out, there will always be questions about how much the system can help any troubled family.

"It is convenient to look at the court system and say, 'Why didn't you fix this, or why didn't you do it . . . so it could have been remedied properly rather than tragically?' But I think that that overlooks a very basic aspect of responsibility that has to lie within the community itself."

The Washington Post's information on the events leading to Porsche's death has been obtained from knowledgeable sources, records and interviews with family members and neighbors. Johnson and Porsche's mother, Alecia Medley, declined to grant interviews for this story. Their lawyers and family court and city social service officials said the D.C. law forbidding their disclosure of information about family court cases prevents them from making public comment.

Porsche Mercedes Medley was born Oct. 20 into a family in which child abuse and neglect had existed for generations.

Johnson had spent his boyhood in rural Maryland and inner-city Washington, shuttling between various caretakers, some of whom beat him, according to information given to court investigators. As a teen-ager, Johnson served a total of two years on breaking-and-entering convictions at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, the city's centers for delinquent youth. Later, he served in the Army and worked briefly as a security guard.

Before fathering Porsche, Johnson had had two children by a previous relationship: The first, Natasha, was stillborn in June 1982. Her mother has said in interviews with court investigators that Johnson beat her during her pregnancy, but she never told police. The mother is being treated for cocaine addiction at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Johnson's second child, a boy, was born to the same woman in October 1983. Last September, the child, nearly 3, was hospitalized after a severe beating, according to police and medical reports. A doctor at Children's Hospital who examined the child found numerous old and new cuts, marks and scars on his chest, arms, legs, back and buttocks and concluded he had been the victim of prolonged beatings over a long period of time, according to the reports.

Family Court Judge Susan Holmes, finding a "likelihood of serious harm," placed the boy in a foster home after Johnson admitted to police that he had used a heavy belt on his son "to potty-train him" after he wet the sofa. Johnson defended his actions, according to a police report, saying that "this isn't child abuse, that he has the right to beat his child."

Judge Huhn took over the abuse case on Oct. 29, approving an agreement between Johnson and city prosecutors that included Johnson's admission that he had beaten his son. Under that agreement, the boy was to remain in foster care until Johnson met conditions imposed by the court, including participating in family therapy and parent training classes at Children's Hospital.

Porsche was Johnson's third child. The mother was Alecia Medley, 17. Medley had spent much of her teen-age life on the run. At 13, her mother turned her over to Virginia authorities because of her "bad behavior" and asked that she be placed in foster care, according to information provided to D.C. family court investigators.

Later, her parents took her back. According to sources, she was again placed in a foster home by the Alexandria family court, which was told that her stepfather allegedly disciplined her by beating her.

Medley ran away from her Virginia foster home and worked as a dancer at clubs such as Foxy Playground on Georgia Avenue in the District. In early 1984, she met Johnson and the couple moved into a fourth-floor walk-up at 1417 Newton St. NW.

In 1985, Medley was arrested near Logan Circle on a charge of solicitation for prostitution. She pleaded guilty and was sent back to Virginia authorities for foster care, only to run away once more and return to Johnson.

Late last October, authorities began to focus on Porsche and her well-being. Court social worker Louis Meyers, investigating Johnson's abuse case, visited the Newton Street apartment and saw Porsche for the first time, Meyers said in an interview. Meyers, who has since left the court system, said he was concerned about the welfare of the newborn in this household, and telephoned the city's child abuse hot line in the Department of Human Services. The agency investigated and concluded that there were "elements of neglect" in Porsche's environment -- a warning that the family needed further examination.

Lawyers in the city's corporation counsel's office, which prosecutes juvenile crime, also contacted the Department of Human Services about Porsche's welfare after Medley, wanted as a runaway, was picked up by police Dec. 9.

Medley came before Judge Huhn, after nine days in detention, asking to go home with Porsche and Johnson. Johnson had been before Huhn six weeks earlier on the abuse case, and sources said the judge did not realize that this was the same man. Thus, according to sources present at the hearing, Huhn saw few options for Medley: She was five months short of 18, and the court would soon lose its power over her as a juvenile. She was estranged from her parents, a runaway who was unlikely to remain in foster care or a youth shelter house.

Huhn agreed to release Medley into Johnson's custody, making him her guardian on the condition that she take steps to improve herself, such as attending nursing classes and family therapy, the sources said.

The next day, coincidentally, Johnson came before Huhn for a review of his son's child abuse case, sources said, and Huhn realized that he was the same man into whose care she had released Medley. The judge did not change her earlier decision.

The court in effect had labeled Johnson too dangerous to care for his son but not so dangerous that he could not care for his teen-age girlfriend, who was Porsche's mother.

To a group of young mothers and other neighbors in the Newton Street apartment, Johnson's outbursts had become almost routine. Robert L. Brown, 44, whose apartment was kitty-corner from Johnson's, remembers Medley as the terrified young woman who sought refuge for herself and her baby in Brown's apartment.

"I'd hear that whooping and hollering -- 'Please, Mike, don't hit me no more,' " Brown said.

Once Medley fled naked from the apartment building into the street as Johnson chased her with a belt, several neighbors recalled.

"He used to yell at that baby like she could understand him," said a neighbor who asked not to be identified.

On July 6, the day before Porsche's death, Kathleen Simms, 64, Johnson's next-door neighbor, said that through the wall, she heard Johnson yelling and the sounds of a crying baby.

"He was raising his voice and saying, 'Didn't I tell you hush? Hush your mouth,' " Simms recalled. "And then I'd hear little smacks."

Later that day Medley crossed the hall into the apartment of another neighbor, Delores Peoples, complaining bitterly that Porsche was covered with bruises, Peoples said. Medley cried and talked alternately about leaving Johnson and loving him.

Neighbors said they called police many times over the years about Johnson's behavior. Nevertheless, the neighbors' reports about Porsche did not reach Judge Huhn.

The reports Huhn received -- some positive, some negative -- came through regular family court channels. Social worker Meyers said he told the family court that he was impressed by Johnson's willingness to follow through on parent training classes and therapy with his son. In one memo to Huhn, Meyers described Johnson as a "happy, energetic, vociferous and rather likeable" man who spoke of "{turning} over a new leaf," according to sources.

Johnson had learned "new techniques of parenting," realized the serious consequences further abuse would bring, and had earned the right to regain custody of his son, Meyers wrote in another memo in April.

Huhn also got reports from psychiatrists who were treating Johnson's son while he remained under foster care, sources said. One doctor said the boy still had great fears of his father. Another said the boy opened up dramatically and seemed very comfortable with Johnson.

The court learned during this period of a fight between Johnson and Medley that was recounted to Huhn in a memo from another court social worker, Desiree Dansan. Medley claimed that Johnson had beaten her with barbells and that she fled to her mother's Alexandria apartment.

Fearing for the safety of Porsche, Medley and her mother asked D.C. police to remove Porsche from Johnson, which they did. But the next day, saying she did not want to press charges, Medley returned to Johnson with their baby.

Johnson admitted to Dansan that he had beaten Medley out of jealousy and apologized for losing his temper. Dansan, who saw Medley's bruises, described the incident with alarm to Huhn, criticizing both the severity of the assault by Johnson and Medley's tendency to keep returning to an abusive man.

"Alecia is adamant about wanting to remain with Michael Johnson," Dansan wrote in an April 22 memo to Huhn, according to sources. "She does not take responsibility for her actions, has poor insight and is extremely dependent."

At a status hearing later, Huhn lectured the young couple about the barbells incident, ordered Medley to undergo therapy and left the couple together.

On June 20, Johnson was arrested on a charge of marijuana possession, and shortly thereafter he lost a job he had just gotten as a security guard. The charge was dropped, and although it delayed the plan to return Johnson's son to the household, it did not change the court's overall assessment of Johnson as a father.

"Johnson has done all that has been asked of him, demonstrating caring for and commitment to his son," a court social worker, Steven Steinberg, wrote to the court in a June 23 memo, sources said.

On June 26 there was another status hearing before Huhn concerning the welfare of the boy. The consensus was that the family was healing and that with continued family supervision and counseling the boy could go back to Johnson. The lawyers representing each of the parties agreed.

Recalling her impressions that day and other times she saw the couple and Porsche in court, Huhn said: "I saw them with the child, the little one, the baby. They were both caring. Sometimes when she talked to me . . . . He'd hold the baby. There was warmth."

Eleven days later, police charged Johnson with the death of Porsche Medley.