The heartbreaking case of Elora McKemy was closed last month. But justice left a bitter taste, and the tiny victim seemed less than wholly avenged.

On the surface, the case appeared as straightforward as it was ghastly. Two-year-old Elora, daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Babenhausen, vanished from her family's apartment during the night of Sept. 14, 1993. Her brutally abused body was found shortly after dawn near a gravel quarry. After an eight-month investigation, an American soldier was arrested and charged with murder, rape and kidnapping. Spec. Patrick M. Smith, 22, pleaded guilty Dec. 19 and was sentenced to life in prison.

But nothing about the McKemy murder has been simple. The case combined the taut suspense of a whodunit -- the manhunt involved the broadest use of DNA testing ever in a criminal investigation -- with lingering questions regarding civil liberties, due process and international concepts of justice.

Was it proper for military authorities to make a sweeping request for blood samples in an attempt to identify Elora's murderer through a DNA match?

Will the military's new "DNA repository" be used exclusively for body identification, as the Pentagon contends, or could it be put to work as an investigative tool in criminal matters? At what point does the accumulation of DNA "prints" become an unwarranted intrusion on privacy?

Among the few points of concurrence in the McKemy case is agreement that the crime was unspeakably vicious and may forever elude human comprehension.

"I've seen a lot of really terrible cases," said defense counsel Joel Cohen, an American attorney in Frankfurt who has represented soldiers in Germany for 25 years. "This is one of the most horrible in terms of what happened. And it's the most bizarre in terms of trying to answer why it happened. I've been able to answer that in every other murder case I've ever seen. But not this one." The shattering of the McKemy family's world, according to German and American investigators, occurred sometime between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1993. Sgt. Brent McKemy, a gunner with an artillery brigade stationed 15 miles southeast of Frankfurt, stayed up late to prepare for a Wednesday morning inspection before going to bed at 1 a.m. His wife and Elora, who had just returned from a three-month visit with relatives in the United States, were already asleep.

Unseen and unheard, an intruder slipped through the unlocked door of Building 4537, climbed to the fourth floor and entered the unlocked apartment. He found Elora's bedroom and left with the little girl in his arms. At 4 a.m., Penny McKemy suddenly awoke to find her daughter missing. Within two hours, 400 soldiers from Sgt. McKemy's battalion had joined American and German police in a search.

At 7:30 a.m., a German watchman found Elora's nude body face down on a railroad embankment a half mile from the apartment. The girl had been raped and battered, then killed with a blow to the head. A spokesman for the prosecutor in the nearby city of Darmstadt said, "We've never seen such a brutal murder." From the outset of the investigation, the case involved collaboration among the Darmstadt police, U.S. Army detectives and the state of Hesse's forensic laboratory in Wiesbaden. A minute amount of semen was found on Elora's body, mixed with vaginal fluid and large quantities of blood, Harald Schneider, a molecular biologist and supervisor of the laboratory, said in a telephone interview.

After separating the fluid traces, scientists isolated the DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid -- of the presumed killer. As unique to individual humans as fingerprints, DNA carries the genetic code of organic cells in a sequence that determines hereditary characteristics. As an investigative technique, DNA matching is relatively new -- the Wiesbaden laboratory first took up the science just three years ago -- but when done properly it is widely considered accurate. By the end of September 1993, forensic scientists had compared the killer's DNA print to that extracted from blood samples donated by Elora's parents, family acquaintances and other likely suspects. No match. Given the nature of the abduction, German police had been almost certain that the murderer was someone who knew the family. With no witnesses and virtually no clues despite a $20,000 reward, officials suggested a massive DNA screening program of every male who had been near the military housing complex on Sept. 15. "We didn't have much hope, but it was the only thing we had going for us," Heinz Steinmann, a Darmstadt detective, said in an interview. "In consideration of American law, we stressed the voluntary nature of the program. Critical things, like interrogations, we left to the CID," the Army's criminal investigative service. Within six weeks of the murder, authorities had taken roughly 1,500 blood samples. The number eventually would grow to 1,900, the "biggest case in the world in terms of the number of people screened," according to Schneider.

DNA extracts were removed from each sample and frozen at a rate of more than 100 extracts a week. Those extracts were then screened through a sequence of filters, or "systems," in a search for certain genetic characteristics that matched those of the killer.

By the middle of January 1994, the culprit had been pinpointed: Smith, a weapons expert from Rex, Ga., serving in the 27th Field Artillery Regiment at Babenhausen. The identification was kept secret as Wiesbaden scientists proceeded with further tests and police investigators searched for corroborative evidence.

Most of those who had given blood samples were U.S. soldiers living in or near the Babenhausen housing area. The troops were told their participation was voluntary; those who gave specimens signed consent forms.

According to an Army spokeswoman in Heidelberg, "120 soldiers declined to comply and no action was taken against those who refused to give blood. Only the investigators are aware of those who refused and that information was not given to the soldiers' commanders."

Cohen, the defense counsel, contends the Army is being disingenuous. "Procedures used by the military in obtaining consent to draw blood from Smith and more than 1,000 other people were Orwellian," Cohen said. "You had units that were directed to go to the police station. Fingerprints were taken from the soldiers, other information was taken and then they were placed in a position of being asked to cooperate by giving a blood sample.

"You can see the possibility of law enforcement agents in the United States rounding up a town, marching the citizens to a police station and asking everybody if they're willing to give a blood sample," Cohen added. "The specter is horrifying."

Army officials declined to make investigators or prosecutors available for interviews. An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said, "There were 1,800 or so who gave samples and 120 who refused. That doesn't sound like coercion to me."

Asked whether a bank of DNA specimens from service members being assembled at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington could be used for investigative purposes, the Pentagon spokesman said, "Right now, the only use of that DNA repository is for human remains identification." The Wiesbaden lab continued to analyze Smith's DNA against that found on Elora's body, methodically plodding through a total of six systems until the statistical odds were 500,000 to 1 against anyone other than Smith being the culprit, Schneider said. Eventually all 1,900 blood specimens were examined. Last May 18, Wiesbaden police brought Smith in for questioning in the presence of an Army intelligence officer, according to Cohen. Smith said he had begun drinking beer and hard liquor at 5 p.m. the evening of the crime and that he remembered nothing about his whereabouts that night. Shown photographs of the crime scene and confronted with the DNA evidence, he admitted to "flashes" of memory that placed him at the scene, Cohen added.

Having narrowed the search to a single suspect through the DNA results, investigators were able to match fibers from a sweatshirt Smith owned to fibers found on Elora's bedding and nightclothes. The case was made. Smith was charged.

The young soldier was flown to Washington and for two months subjected to an intense psychological examination at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The tests and a probe into Smith's past, according to German and American sources, turned up no evidence of sexual deviancy, no history of violence, no latent psychological dysfunction. Investigators also concluded that Smith did not know the McKemys and was unfamiliar with their housing area.

"In all cases where we have an apparently law-abiding person who commits a bizarre crime, we go into the background and we find something strange -- the guy's a loner, or he has substantial problems with his parents, or he has problems with women," Cohen said. "But none of these things surfaced in this case."

By October, the Army made plans to court-martial Smith in the United States for capital murder. In an effort to block Smith's possible execution, the state of Hesse publicly asked the Army to waive jurisdiction in the case to permit a trial in German courts. In early December, the Army commander in Europe, Gen. David M. Maddox, rejected the German request.

The defense team contemplated whether to cut a deal or proceed with a court-martial, gambling that the DNA evidence could be suppressed as improperly obtained.

On Dec. 13, with Smith's concurrence, his lawyers offered to plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. On Dec. 19, the Army staff judge advocate accepted the deal.

That afternoon, Col. Craig S. Schwender, an Army judge, sentenced Smith to life in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Smith told the court that he could remember nothing except drinking at the Babenhausen enlisted soldiers' club the evening of the murder, but that the evidence convinced him he had killed Elora.

Smith's parents, sitting in the courtroom, wept throughout the four-hour proceeding.

Penny McKemy, clutching one of her daughter's favorite dolls, told the judge she had suffered four miscarriages before conceiving her "miracle baby" and doctors had told her she would never have another child.

"Oh, God," she sobbed, "I still don't understand."

Special correspondent Petra Krischok contributed to this report.