In almost any other city, with almost any other popular mayor for a defendant, this might be an opportune moment for Jay B. Stephens to hone his resume.

"You know that old saw," said Steven D. Gordon, a former senior prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office that Stephens heads. " 'If you go after the king, you'd better bring him down.' "

Yet after a split verdict and mistrial that left D.C. Mayor Marion Barry unscathed by the most serious charges against him, the man who called the shots on the prosecution inhabits a far more ambiguous place in the District's divided local and federal communities. A virtual pariah in local Washington, according to community leaders, Stephens remains widely respected in the federal law enforcement fraternity.

One of the few points of overlap between those communities is the criminal justice system, where federal prosecutors depend on members of the local community to cooperate as witnesses and to come with an open mind to jury service. Some local lawyers and activists say a crucial question for Stephens is whether the controversy over the Barry case will spill over into the broader mission of his office.

"They've got to be sensitive to the level of racial distrust," said a former senior prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The office {may start} losing cases we should be winning. Our credibility is not what it used to be."

One D.C. judge, who also declined to be named, said he doubted "in the routine kinds of cases you'd have any spillover, but I think there's a danger . . . in the more publicized areas."

There is nearly nothing about Barry's investigation or trial -- from the methods used to the meaning of the outcome -- that does not remain in dispute.

Critics of Stephens and his predecessors see a 10-year quest to "get Barry," marked by the overzealous targeting of many of his friends and acquaintances and culminating in a string of bitter defeats. They point, in this connection, to the prosecution of Barry's ex-wife, Mary Treadwell; deputy mayors Ivanhoe Donaldson and Alphonse G. Hill; former University of the District of Columbia president Robert L. Green; two D.C. police officers after an investigation that publicly tarnished their whole 4th District vice squad; and David E. Rivers and John B. Clyburn, the former Barry cabinet member and his friend. The critics emphasize that Clyburn, Rivers, Green and one of the two vice officers were acquitted.

Supporters of the U.S. attorney deny that there was anything improper -- or any central plan -- in those prosecutions of Barry friends and associates. Any prosecutor, they said, is obliged to follow leads of serious wrongdoing, and to file charges where warranted by the evidence. The supporters emphasize that Treadwell, Donaldson, Hill and one of the vice officers were convicted on at least part of their indictments.

"To say you should not have investigated this case and tried it would be to ignore the responsibility to uphold the law," said Joseph E. diGenova, who held the U.S. attorney's post before Stephens and launched many of the controversial cases.

Even the outcome of Barry's trial is contested.

"Everyone is acutely aware that Stephens is on a major losing streak and this is the coup de grace," said defense lawyer Greta Van Susteren, echoing comments from many defense lawyers and community activists.

Law enforcement officials and their supporters said they do not see a loss in a case that convicted the mayor of one count and forced him to acknowledge his cocaine use.

"The conviction, albeit a misdemeanor for cocaine possession, will in some way validate the investigation," said a source who played a role in making the case. "While the jury was only able to reach a unanimous {guilty} verdict on that one possession count, there were numerous credible reports of his continuous cocaine ingestion from people close to him."

Stephens, who did not allow jeers from Barry supporters to deter him from making his most extensive public comments on the case, aggressively defended his handling of the investigation and trial in a news conference on the courthouse steps on the day of the verdict.

"For many years the allegations that were brought in this indictment had swirled in this city," he said. "It was important that those allegations be resolved. And this case was set to do that."

As for accusations of overreaching, he said, "My answer to that is an emphatic no . . . . If you look at the counts charged and how the indictment was shaped, I think you will find that the government in fact exercised restraint. There were many, many additional counts we could have charged. There were several counts of drug distribution that we could have charged."

The jury, Stephens said, "in rendering a guilty verdict on one count, has held Mr. Barry responsible for his criminal conduct. He must now accept responsibility for that criminal conduct."

Almost no one disputes that for Barry, a hung jury on 12 of 14 charges -- including the perjury counts, the only felonies in the case -- was a remarkably happy result. A perjury conviction would have virtually guaranteed a prison sentence and a ban on holding political office.

But it does not necessarily follow, for Stephens, that the verdict was the "black eye" that Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and other defense-minded observers have perceived.

"The stakes here are not quite the same as they would be in most other scenarios under which a federal prosecutor would indict a major political figure," said Gordon, the former prosecutor. "The videotape changes a lot of things, because it's a damn smoking gun . . . . If you present the evidence and the jury acquits, there may be a sense that there are people in this town who will acquit him no matter what the evidence is."

There was some dissent from that view within the law enforcement community.

"I think winning and losing has a lot to do with what the public and professional judgment will be," said David Marston, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.

But many of Stephens's fellow U.S. attorneys, interviewed before the verdict was announced, said the outcome of the Barry case would not change their view of their colleague in the District.

"I would never judge him based on one case," said Stephen McNamee, the U.S. attorney for Arizona. "Your job as a prosecutor is to present the evidence in a professional manner."

The professional detachment of the prosecution team -- widely assumed and praised among law enforcement officials -- was called into question by local critics.

"Many of our listeners feel that it was an attempt to silence what they perceive as an outspoken black mayor . . . because he was outspoken and he didn't acquiesce or do what the powers that be thought he should do," said Ernest P. White, host of the "Crosstalk" radio show on WDCU-FM. "I haven't had anybody call up and say, 'Lay off Jay Stephens.' I haven't heard from anybody who says that Jay Stephens was acting within his job description."

But from one critic came an unexpected boost for the U.S. attorney.

"He's had two victories," Calvin Rolark Sr., publisher of the Washington Informer weekly newspaper and a longtime supporter of the mayor, said just before the verdict.

"The first victory was he created an atmosphere such that Mayor Barry decided not to run for mayor of the District of Columbia. The second was the fact that . . . {Barry lawyer R. Kenneth} Mundy himself admitted that Barry was an occasional cocaine user . . . . So I think the verdict has already been out."

Staff writers Elsa Walsh and Saundra Torry contributed to this report.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry -- A federal jury convicted him on one misdemeanor count of cocaine possession, acquitted him on a second and announced it was unable to reach a decision on 12 other charges. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared a mistrial on those 12 charges.

David E. Rivers -- The former head of the District's Department of Human Services, was acquitted last month of bribery and conspiracy charges in what prosecutors alleged was a scheme to manipulate the city contracting process for his own benefit.

John B. Clyburn -- The influential D.C. contractor and close friend and codefendant of Rivers's, was acquitted last month of bribery and conspiracy charges, after a 16-week trial and one of the government's most elaborate and lengthy undercover operations.

D.C. Police 4th District vice squad -- D.C. vice squad Sgt. James Whitaker Jr. pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and false swearing last May, six weeks after his partner, Officer Shelton D. Roberts, was acquitted of similar charges. The government had spent three years investigating and prosecuting alleged wrongdoing in the vice squad of the department's 4th District in Georgia Avenue NW.

Robert L. Green -- The former University of the District of Columbia president was acquitted in 1988 in federal court of all charges against him, including mail fraud, perjury and theft, in connection with a stereo and wide-screen television that were purchased with funds from Mayor Marion Barry's special accounts. Green was represented by R. Kenneth Mundy at his trial.

Alphonse G. Hill -- The former deputy mayor for finance pleaded guilty in 1987 to income tax evasion and to defrauding the city government by steering about $260,000 in auditing contracts to a friend's firm, two of the lesser charges in an 11-count indictment.

Ivanhoe Donaldson -- The former deputy mayor for economic development and one-time Barry campaign manager pleaded guilty in 1985 to federal theft and coverup charges in a plot that netted him more than $190,000 in D.C. government funds.

Mary Treadwell -- The once-powerful head of the now-defunct Youth Pride program in the District and the former wife of the mayor was convicted by a federal court jury in 1983 of conspiracy to defraud the federal government.

Karen K. Johnson -- The former D.C. government employee and former girlfriend of the mayor pleaded guilty in 1984 in federal court to cocaine sale and possession charges stemming from a federal investigation into cocaine use by city workers.