NEW YORK, MARCH 2 -- The emotional debate over what happened to Tawana Brawley, a black teen-ager who now refuses to discuss her claim that she was assaulted by six white men over four days, has been eclipsed by a political sideshow pitting three increasingly prominent black activists against Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) and his attorney general.

Attorneys Alton H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, have persuaded the 16-year-old not to testify about her mysterious ordeal in Dutchess County last November. In doing so, they have denounced Cuomo and the criminal justice system in terms so harsh that some black leaders say they have been offended.

In a matter of days, the three activists have shifted public attention from the young girl found covered with feces and racial epithets to a shouting match in which they, and their legal tactics, are the issue.

At a rally in Poughkeepsie last weekend, Maddox, addressing Cuomo rhetorically, said: "We come to you with hate in our eyes. We come to you with hate in our minds. We come to you with hate in our hearts. You are not talking to foot-shufflers."

Sharpton last week compared the attempt to have Brawley cooperate with Attorney General Robert Abrams, whom Cuomo appointed as special prosecutor in the case, to "asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler."

As they did in the notorious Howard Beach case, urging black survivors of a racial attack not to cooperate in the investigation, Maddox, Mason and Sharpton have placed themselves at the center of an increasingly polarized racial debate here.

Cuomo, who just three weeks ago brokered an agreement enlisting the trio's cooperation in the Brawley case, now accuses them of constantly "making up new conditions . . . . They said they had reasons they could not cooperate . . . . It's clear now that they don't really."

The confusion obscures and exacerbates gaps and discrepancies in Brawley's initial accounts to investigators after she was found in a plastic garbage bag Nov. 28 with some of her hair chopped off and "KKK" and "nigger" scrawled in ink or charcoal on her body.

Brawley said she had been abducted, beaten and sexually abused by six white men, one of them with a badge. But she was unclear about where she had been held and what happened during the four days.

In addition, it has never been made clear how she could have been repeatedly beaten and left in the cold during her four-day disappearance, yet be treated for only minor injuries when she was found and hospitalized. Hospital tests reportedly found no evidence of rape.

But while most people are willing to believe that something terrible happened to Brawley, a former cheerleader in Wappinger Falls, the full story may never be known if her lawyers stick to their strategy.

"The tragedy of this whole thing is that this kid is going to be denied justice," said Charles J. Hynes, the prosecutor who won manslaughter convictions in the Howard Beach case. "What's beginning to slip into the press are oblique hints that maybe this thing didn't happen."

Maddox and Mason have suffered "a tremendous loss of credibility" by making demands that no prosecutor could accept, Hynes said.

The activists' tactics also have split the state's black leaders. Assemblyman Roger Green, a leading black Democrat, assailed Sharpton Tuesday for inflammatory rhetoric and "tactics that encourage race war." Sharpton replied by calling Green "a state-sponsored Uncle Tom."

Laura Blackburne, counsel to the state NAACP, said Maddox and Mason "have not demonstrated why the state attorney general's office is not equipped to do the job. I appeal to Mr. Maddox to let people know what he's doing, and why, so we can help him."

Critics, including Mayor Edward I. Koch (D), have denounced Maddox, Mason and Sharpton as publicity-hungry opportunists eager to exploit racial tensions. Others applaud their goals but question their tactics, such as choosing last Dec. 21, hours before the Howard Beach verdicts were returned, to stage a massive disruption of New York traffic and subway service.

"Everything Maddox touches seems to turn into a huge maelstrom of charges and countercharges," said Richard Emery, a civil rights lawyer here. "It stems from a belief that confrontation will empower him in the press and the eyes of the black community."

In the Brawley case, Emery said, Maddox and his colleagues "are frustrating justice for their own clients when justice is offered to them on a silver platter. Virtually all the other black leadership in the state is distancing themselves from these three."

Still, in a city with few elected black leaders, the two southern-born lawyers and the Brooklyn minister have drawn an enormous amount of media coverage.

Maddox has long defended his hard-ball approach as necessary to shake what he sees as a biased criminal justice system. He grew up in segregated Newnan, Ga., and returned there in 1967 after graduating from Howard University. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest that year in a scuffle with local police; Maddox maintained that the police beat him because of his involvement in the civil rights movement.

After graduating from Boston University Law School, Maddox worked at Harlem Legal Services and the National Conference of Black Lawyers before entering private practice in 1981. His clients have included a black youth accused of killing a white priest; a black man accused of assaulting a white plainclothes police officer, and a black man accused of slashing the face of a white model in a landlord-tenant dispute.

"The system simply refuses to protect the lives of black people," Maddox told The Washington Post Magazine last year. "It has cheapened black life. The life of a black man in 1987 is the same as it was in 1820: We are still three-fifths of a human being."

Mason, a native of Tucker, Ark., is no stranger to city politics. In an unsuccessful 1985 race for Manhattan district attorney, he captured 32 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. A graduate of Columbia University Law School and a veteran of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Mason has been handling civil rights cases for 15 years, most recently one in which a black educator says he was beaten by Bronx police.

Mason said last week that he, Maddox and Sharpton were not "unreasonable people imposing unreasonable demands."

"This is not some kind of ego exploit on our parts," he said. "We're representing clients here . . . . We're not involved in personal agendas."

Sharpton, a Pentecostal minister without a congregation, is an associate of several celebrities, including singer James Brown and boxing promoter Don King. He worked with Jesse L. Jackson in conducting consumer boycotts in the late 1960s and now heads an antidrug group called the National Youth Movement.

Sharpton also has been an informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, joining in at least one probe of black community groups and allowing a wiretap to be placed in his house, according to a recent report in Newsday. Although Sharpton had confirmed many of the details to Newsday, he denounced the report the next day as a "setup" by political foes aimed at "either killing me or running me out of town."

The trio gained national prominence after the Howard Beach attack that led to Michael Griffith's death on a Queens highway. Their strategy of noncooperation with the Queens district attorney forced Cuomo to name Hynes as special prosecutor.

The Brawley incident received little publicity for two months after it occurred, but the case began heating up when Maddox, Mason and Sharpton advised the family not to talk to the Dutchess County district attorney. He soon resigned from the case because of an unspecified conflict of interest, and Cuomo turned the case over to Abrams in late January.

Since then, Cuomo has devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to the case, an approach that has embroiled him in a nasty war of words with the black lawyers.

Maddox and Mason balked at the selection of Abrams, who has a 20-year record as a civil rights supporter. They complained that Abrams was delegating the case to John M. Ryan, his criminal division chief, and that Ryan was unknown to them.

On a radio call-in show, Maddox said Brawley "started out as a suspect and she continues to be a suspect because she is a black woman accusing white police officers . . . . We threw out a peace pipe to the governor . . . . He has a vendetta against us and our involvement in the case."

Cuomo responded: "It's not up to Maddox and Mason to tell the government of New York how to run its justice system."

Cuomo summoned the three to his Albany office for a three-hour meeting Feb. 11, and the activists announced that they would cooperate because Cuomo had assured them that Abrams would supervise the case personally. But the compromise quickly fell apart when Abrams would not agree to a list of demands, including that he deliver the opening and closing arguments at any trial and participate in jury selection.

The activists then began demanding Abrams' replacement, accusing him of "aligning himself with the culprits" and trying "to cover up for the good-old-boy network." They said Abrams had unspecified links to the Dutchess County sheriff because he owns a summer house in the county.

When Cuomo, walking a tightrope between compromise and capitulation, suggested that Brawley might have to be subpoenaed to testify, the activists said they might seek a federal probe instead. "A Republican administration might be interested in a potential Democratic president that locks up 16-year-old rape victims," Sharpton said.

Even while demanding a new prosecutor, Maddox, Mason and Sharpton have also said that Brawley may be unable to testify because of her emotional state.

Last Saturday, the three unveiled a new proposal: that Cuomo name Maddox as special prosecutor. "Give Maddox the power, and we'll lock up all six men by 6 o'clock tomorrow," Sharpton said.

Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics at New York University Law School, said Maddox and Mason "had a valid argument" in pressing for a special prosecutor, but "they may now have gone beyond that point. Their insistence on being part of the prosecution team and micromanaging the investigation is wrong."

Gillers said the lawyers are within their rights to advise Brawley that she need not cooperate. That would change if Brawley were subpoenaed to testify, he said, but such a move would put the state in the uncomfortable position of threatening to jail the victim.

"It's a real standoff," Gillers said, "because each side has some cards, but neither side has enough to win the game."