NEW YORK -- Waiting for the jury at the Howard Beach murder trial was like living in a state of suspended animation. Time crawled. You filed into the courtroom, heard more testimony read back, filed back into the smoke-filled pressroom, stalked the corridors, and still there was no verdict.

It was one of the most closely watched and racially charged cases in New York history, and yet the tension had ebbed. Everyone is exhausted -- the lawyers, the prosecutors, the defendants, the families, the policemen and the mob of reporters and cameramen who staked out the criminal courthouse on Queens Boulevard since Dec. 10.

The case was compelling. Four white teen-agers from the Howard Beach section of Queens were charged with murder, manslaughter and lesser counts in the death of Michael Griffith, a black man who was struck by a car on the Belt Parkway one year ago after fleeing a gang of whites shouting racial epithets. The teen-agers also were charged in the beating of another black man.

While special prosecutor Charles J. Hynes and the four defense lawyers said it was fruitless to speculate on what a jury was doing behind closed doors, they did so at the drop of a notebook. With radio reporters filing updates every 20 minutes and television stations seeking daily footage, every blip became news.

The jury has sent a note saying it wants to hear the judge's charge on first-degree assault -- that must mean they're close. The jury wants to go to church services Sunday morning -- that must mean they're getting nowhere. The jury wants to work until 8:00 tonight, so that must mean -- who knows?

All of this produced such an orgy of meaningless speculation that radio correspondents kept rushing on the air with word that a verdict appeared imminent, until the passing hours proved them wrong.

When Justice Thomas A. Demakos last week excused an alternate juror who had heard the case but did not participate in deliberations, he was mobbed at home by reporters, and his comments were treated as big news.

Desperate for someone to put on the air, TV crews thrust microphones at the defendants and their friends, allowing spiky-haired teen-age girls to offer their ungrammatical views of the case. On other days, the spotlight fell on the victim's family or on the black leaders who gravitated to the klieg lights. In utter frustration, the crews even interviewed other reporters.

Hour after hour, disheveled journalists trooped into the courtroom for what were called "readbacks" -- portions of testimony the jury asked to hear again. Much of it was from such peripheral witnesses as teen-agers at the beer-drinking party that preceded the confrontation at the New Park Pizzeria.

Many of the questions seemed pointless: How big was the basement where the party was held? What kind of music was played -- records or tapes? What kind of beer was consumed? Was it in big bottles or little bottles?

One had to suppress an urge to stand up and shout, "Who cares if the beer came in big bottles or little bottles? Why don't you go ahead and decide this case already?"

There was plenty of time to ponder why state law forbids jurors to take notes, even during a complicated three-month trial, or to receive a written copy of the judge's legal charge. Hynes said the law should be changed.

As the marathon dragged on, the prosecutors and defense lawyers, who were at each other's throats during the tense trial, became back-slapping buddies, praising each other to the skies over a beer at Tony Roma's or a sandwich at Pastrami King across the street.

The hottest item one day was a courtroom artist's sketch of four apoplectic defense lawyers and their angelic clients, complete with halos. Another day, the pressroom regulars ordered up a batch of Howard Beach T-shirts, which quickly sold out. Each day, lines formed at the pressroom's tiny bathroom next to the desk of radio reporter Mary Gay Taylor.

"No Flushing When Mary Gay is On Air," a sign warns.

Finally came the chaos that accompanied the verdict. Until then, it had been about as exciting as watching snow melt.