Lorena Bobbitt did not walk out of court a free woman yesterday, but she got the next best thing: a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Bobbitt, who had been charged with malicious wounding, could have gone to prison for up to 20 years for cutting off her husband's penis last June. Instead she was whisked from a courthouse in Manassas to a state hospital in Petersburg, Va., for psychiatric evaluation.

"She's not guilty of anything. . . . She's fully exonerated," a jubilant Blair D. Howard, one of Bobbitt's three attorneys, said after the conclusion of the eight-day trial, one of the nation's most watched and debated sagas of marital strife -- a soap opera come to life.

When the verdict was announced, the 24-year-old defendant smiled briefly but showed no other emotion. A dozen or so of her friends in the back of the small courtroom emitted a loud gasp of relief.

John Bobbitt was not in the Manasssas courthouse yesterday, and his attorney, Greg Murphy, would not comment on the verdict.

One of Lorena Bobbitt's attorneys, Lisa B. Kemler, said her client leaned toward her on hearing the jury's decision and asked, "Is that good?"

"I said, 'You're free,' " Kemler said.

Bobbitt's attorneys asked Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. to consider letting her go immediately, but he said the law did not allow it and ordered that she be remanded to the custody of the state's mental health commissioner.

At Petersburg's Central State Hospital, she will be housed in the forensic unit and will be examined by two doctors to determine if she is a danger to herself or others and what sort of treatment she needs, if any.

The evaluators must report back to Whisenant within 45 days, and a hearing then will be held in which the judge can do one of three things: free her outright; release her conditionally, perhaps to a community treatment program; or keep her hospitalized until she gets well. She could remain confined for the rest of her life.

"It was not easy" to reach a verdict, said juror Jean Salisbury, of Nokesville, one of seven women on the 12-member jury, which deliberated 7 1/2 hours before reaching its verdict.

"It's a sad situation for everybody," Salisbury said. "I'm glad it's over, and hopefully the healing process will begin for her. . . . We know the difficulty she'll face ahead of her."

Bobbitt admitted mutilating her husband with a 12-inch kitchen knife in the early morning hours of June 23 but said she did so after he raped her. Her attorneys maintained that she had a brief psychotic breakdown, brought on by years of spousal abuse, and could not resist the impulse to maim her husband.

John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, was acquitted of marital sexual assault last November in the same courthouse and has adamantly denied ever raping or even striking his wife. His jury never got to hear most of the testimony against him that was presented in excruciating detail during his wife's trial.

"James M. Lowe, one of Lorena Bobbitt's attorneys, said the turning point in the trial came when John Bobbitt was revealed as "a lying sack of {expletive}. . . . There is not a single shred of truth to anything he said."

Yesterday, John Bobbitt's media adviser explained why his client, who had testified three times in his wife's trial, was absent from the courthouse. "We're not into grave-dancing." Later, after the verdict was read, the adviser was nowhere to be found despite his repeated promises that he'd have something to say.

John Wayne Bobbitt "was dumbfounded," his stepfather Bill Biro said last night. "He said 'you mean, she got away with it?' " Biro said on the CNN television program "Larry King Live."

"I don't believe John raped her or beat her," Biro said. "John was smeared; she got off."

Bobbitt "is trying to bear up under it," Biro said, but in what Biro called a rare departure from the attitude Bobbitt has shown since the incident occurred, "today, he broke down" and also "said something that was less than complimentary toward Lorena."

Lorena Bobbitt's longtime friend and employer, Janna Bisutti Suleiman, read a statement on Lorena's behalf, saying she wished to thank God, her attorneys and her supporters outside the courthouse and across the country.

"She came to America several years ago with a dream," Suleiman said. ". . . Her marriage, however, became a nightmare."

The statement urged other victims of domestic violence to get help and added: "If the publicity of her abuse can help one person find freedom, then all of this was not in vain."

As Bobbitt's trial wore on, her supporters flooded the courthouse with calls and in person, gathering outside each night to cheer her as she left. Longtime court employees said they could not recall a case in which a criminal defendant got so much encouragement. Letters and postcards addressed simply to "Lorena Bobbitt, Manassas, Va." arrived in the court clerk's office daily, as did bouquets of flowers and a large white teddy bear.

As word of the verdict spread, dozens of sign-carrying demonstrators outside the courthouse hugged one another and chanted Bobbitt's name. "It's fabulous. It's a landmark decision," said John Gloster, 34, a District financial planner who was in the crowd. "This country is in a state of denial about wife abuse. Maybe this will open people's eyes."

Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who found himself in the unusual position of prosecuting both Bobbitts and going 0-for-2, said he felt "a certain amount of sympathy" for Lorena Bobbitt, "but that doesn't justify what she did."

"She's easy to feel sorry for: a little, diminutive woman who obviously had a very terrible marriage at best," Ebert said. "This jury knows he has been acquitted of any allegations she made. This jury knows he's flying all over the country for profit. All these factors are human factors -- not legal factors. To me, this was a domestic cutting, no more and no less.

"What bothered me from the start was what to do with her," Ebert said. "I thought from the onset that probation and psychiatric treatment might be the best solution. However, because of the deterrent factor and the message that sends out, I thought she should have some time and punishment."

Ebert also said he considered not calling John Bobbitt to testify but thought that, lousy witness or not, the commonwealth needed him for its case.

With Lorena Bobbitt heading to the hospital last night and no comment from John Bobbitt's side, the gigantic media caravan that has camped out in Manassas for the last two weeks was shutting down. But the story of the Bobbitts, which has left everyone from columnists to comedians with an opinion, is far from over.

With movie deals, talk-show appearances and erudite magazine profiles in the works, the couple will remain a springboard for debate about battered women and the powerful symbolism many saw in Lorena Bobbitt's act.

"There are many Lorena Bobbitts. The only difference is that the others have done nothing to retaliate," said Stephanie Williams, who heads a support group in Manassas for Hispanic families. Williams, who attended the trial, agreed that Lorena Bobbitt "did the unspeakable" but said the cutting reflected "the rage felt by scores of women" abused first by the men in their lives and then by the legal system.

Because Virginia law limits prosecutors in presenting evidence of a defendant's prior conduct, evidence in John Bobbitt's trial was limited to the events of the five days preceding his mutilation.

But it quickly became clear in this trial that Lorena Bobbitt was a battered woman. More than four dozen witnesses trooped to the stand, many with chilling accounts of instances where John Bobbitt had beaten, punched, pushed, kicked and choked her. He was relentless, jurors were told, breaking down doors to get at her, or dragging her by the hair.

Their marriage, defense attorneys said, was a four-year "reign of terror."

It didn't start out that way. When Lorena Leonor Gallo, a South American immigrant who came to the United States on a student visa in 1986, met John Bobbitt at an enlisted men's club at Quantico two years later, she thought the handsome Marine lance corporal was "her knight in shining armor," according to her attorneys. A 10-month courtship gave no hint of what was to follow.

Lorena Bobbitt alleged that her husband first struck her a month after they were wed in June 1989 and never let up. John Bobbitt has steadfastly denied this, saying that it was he who was the victim of a jealous wife who finally committed the ultimate act of revenge last June.

Jurors heard John Bobbitt describe being awakened by a sudden pull at his penis, and they were shown color photographs of the severed organ and the resulting wound. The pictures were gory and shocking. So was Lorena Bobbitt's description of how she drove away from the apartment in an emotional haze, clutching the steering wheel with a knife in one hand and the severed penis in the other. Horrified by what she had done, she said, she hurled the organ into a field, but then told police where to find it.

Doctors reattached the penis during 9 1/2 hours of surgery that was recounted for jurors. John Bobbitt testified that he is recovering well, but his doctor said he could be a "sexual cripple."

Although John Bobbitt was the victim at his wife's trial, more often he was treated as the villain. By the trial's end, only he and his family were arguing to the jury that Lorena Bobbitt's claims were pure fiction.

Even the three-doctor panel that examined Lorena Bobbitt for the state concluded that she was a battered wife and that she had been raped by her husband minutes before she cut him.

Although doctors on both sides likewise were unanimous in their opinion that Lorena Bobbitt suffers from a severe and long-standing mental illness, only one, who testified for the defense, said she broke from reality last June 23 and was unable to control her impulses -- the definition of temporary insanity.

Time and again throughout the trial, Lorena Bobbitt broke down and cried, both as she testified and as she listened to her friends come forward.

If the mood inside the courtroom was somber, outside the courthouse there was a carnival atmosphere. Satellite trucks lined the road, radio deejays hooted and hawked weiner lunches, and housewives and college students launched a tawdry but booming industry, selling off-color shirts, shorts, penis-shaped candies and other souvenirs. For $25, you could even buy a T-shirt reading "Love Hurts" autographed by John Bobbitt himself.

Even as the jury wound up its deliberations, agents for both Bobbitts were lurking in the corridors of the courthouse, eagerly relating their negotiations with what they said were scores of offers from movie moguls, talk show hosts and others.

John Bobbitt, who for weeks has been jetting across the country on a radio tour, is about to hop the Atlantic for a similar European blitz, according to agent Paul Erickson. When he's not chatting -- for money -- Bobbitt just might start a second life roping longhorns at a ranch in Colorado, Erickson added.

Bobbitt had to take time out yesterday to appear in federal court in Alexandria to get a trial date on a charge of driving with a suspended license last summer in Quantico.

Lorena Bobbitt also is weighing at least 10 movie offers and is making arrangements with ABC-TV to appear exclusively on the network's news shows. Win or lose, said agent Alan Hauge, he knew all along that there was a wide audience for her story.

Staff writers Carlos Sanchez and Eric L. Wee contributed to this report.