As the most-watched murder trial in U.S. history reached its climax yesterday, the nation's capital stood frozen, riveted to TV sets as a host of painful issues -- class, race, homicide, police conduct -- were reduced to two short words in the O.J. Simpson case:

Not guilty.

Just that quickly, it was over. And after a while -- after unleashing their joy or swallowing their nausea -- Washington area residents, through the day and long into the night, mulled and argued the implications.

"The issue is, for once in a lifetime, a black man was able to afford adequate representation," said Tene McCoy, 23, a Howard University law student. "We can now do what white people have been doing all the time."

Mike Berning, a 60-year-old consultant in the District, declared: "What all of this does show is you can hire justice in this country. Justice can be manipulated. It's all about money."

Each echoed thousands of others after yesterday's verdicts were read. But first, like almost everyone else, they waited pensively for 1 p.m. to arrive. Across the region, people crowded around televisions as Judge Lance A. Ito, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, summoned Simpson's jury one final time.

From Annapolis to Woodbridge, from Anacostia to Frederick, crowded restaurants suddenly fell silent, people on street corners huddled over radios, and workers by the thousands -- in top-floor offices, at hot dog stands, in underground construction sites -- all at once took a break. At the Supreme Court, where decorum is everything, oral arguments began as scheduled at 1 p.m., but a messenger soon passed a note about the Simpson verdicts to the grand mahogany bench, and the justices discreetly handed it one to another, still listening to a lawyer state his case.

At the White House, even President Clinton paused -- watching the verdicts on a television in a small room next to the Oval Office and then penning a statement calling for respect for the jury's decision but sympathy for the families of the dead victims.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) canceled a news conference to announce whether he would retire or run for reelection next year. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) rescheduled a 1 p.m. news conference to noon to announce a proposal to set up individual retirement accounts for children. "Not only would you not be here" at 1 p.m., Lieberman told reporters, "but I wouldn't be here, either." Not guilty.

And the region let out cries of joy and sneers of disgust.

Along North Capitol Street, drivers honked horns in celebration, while dozens of Howard University law students erupted in cheers, many hugging and crying. In Preston's barbershop on Georgia Avenue NW, Jason Lewis, 27, said, "That's one brother who didn't bite the dust," and high-fived another barber. Stephen Wesley, principal of Anacostia Senior High School, said televisions were on in every classroom. "There was an uproar when the verdict was announced," he said, describing the sustained cheer that went up.

"Now O.J. needs to stay black, for real," said Antwon Harris, a 17-year-old junior, referring to the football legend's circle of wealthy, white friends. "He don't need to mess with no more white people."

The verdicts are in for America's most celebrated murder defendant. But what of the larger questions his trial highlighted?

In Washington, as elsewhere, they appear raw and open.

There were those who felt disgusted, believing that a wealthy black man, able to hire the best lawyers money can buy, had exploited racial sensitivities among jurors and had escaped justice in a grisly double murder that is likely to go forever unpunished.

There was, for instance, Jamie Evanicky, 24, who watched the acquittal on television in the Bennigan's restaurant in Springfield Mall. "I'm shocked," she said, declaring that "justice wasn't done. It turned into more of a racial thing than what actually happened. Race played too big a part in it. It's sad to see that, but that's the way it is in this country. "This proves how screwed-up our justice system is, because {the jurors} were looking at other issues than the matter at hand."

At Brady's, a Manassas restaurant, construction company manager William Singleton, 30, called the verdicts "bull{expletive}!" And his friend and fellow manager, John Ramos, 34, agreed. "It wasn't a trial about right and wrong; it was a trial about black and white," Ramos said.

Jim Ludwig, a 42-year-old lawyer, said in a downtown Washington sports bar: "It's a tragedy that someone can commit two murders and get away with it."

Then there were those for whom the defense theory in the case had strong resonance -- the theory that key evidence against Simpson had been planted by a racist police detective, that the football legend had been framed, victimized by a law enforcement conspiracy.

"As far as I'm concerned, black America was on trial," said William Wilkins, a 51-year-old roofer, voicing what polls indicate is a widely held view among African Americans.

"Cops have been doing this to us for years," said Wilkins, walking along Connecticut Avenue NW after Simpson's acquittal. "If cops see me walking up here at . . . night, they stop me and ask me what I'm doing up here. Like I can't walk Connecticut Avenue. That ain't freedom."

Marc Logan is a professional football player, as Simpson was.

"If you look at the polls, most white people think he's guilty and most black people think he's not guilty," said Logan, a fullback for the Washington Redskins who watched yesterday's drama on television at Redskin Park in Loudoun County.

"It dates back to things that black people as a whole have gone through and knowing that things still exist today," said Logan, who is black. "That's why black people think he's not guilty -- because they know that things have been planted, {that} there are crooked cops and crooked people in the system."

It was a sentiment heard often yesterday. "This is personal to many black people," said Desma Kelly, 27, long after she and co-workers at Federal Management Partners, a consulting firm in Fairfax County, had watched Simpson's acquittal. " . . . This helps send the message to the system that black men deserve fairness, too. Personally, this kind of restored my faith in the system."

Yet polls did not completely define reaction to the verdict.

Myron Johnson, 42, a black assistant in a downtown Washington orthodonist's office, said she was "disgusted, just disgusted. Talk about a mockery of the justice system. They sat there for nine months and never even heard any of the evidence."

Don Matthews, 61, also African American, who is retired from the Air Force and lives in Southeast Washington, said he had thought Simpson would be found guilty.

"I was wrong," he said, "but I was right, too, you know? I knew he did it, and he knows he got away with it. He's got his conscience to live with."

Near the Rockville Metro station, Nikos Pizza and Subs attracts a diverse clientele, and among yesterday's patrons was David Burkeman, a 34-year-old white roofer from Frederick County, Md. He spoke of the infamous Fuhrman audiotapes -- the recordings in which the Simpson case investigator, Mark Fuhrman, now retired, casually spewed racial epithets.

"I ain't going to lie," Burkeman said. "I've said the N word.' My friends use it. But I've never heard anyone say crap like that Fuhrman. My uncle's a state trooper. I feel like Mark Fuhrman disgraced all police officers.

"Before Mark Fuhrman, I swear, I thought O.J. did it," Burkeman said. "Now, I respect what the jury decided."

Like Burkeman, Angela Gorospe, 23, is white. Gorospe, a senior at the University of Maryland who works as a paralegal and plans to become a lawyer, said she taped every televised minute of the trial and believed the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof. Of the acquittal, she said: "I'm so happy. I'm so relieved."

For others, there was ambivalence. David Warr, for example, felt mixed emotions. The 36-year-old lobbyist said he was happy for Simpson yet sadder than ever for the families of the two victims, Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.

"I know how they feel," Warr said. Last fall, a cousin of his, Robin Warr Lawrence, was fatally stabbed in the bedroom of her Springfield home. The slaying, like those of Brown and Goldman, is unresolved. "I'm in disbelief," Warr said of the verdicts. " . . . I know how badly the Goldman and Brown families feel. I can really feel for them."

Downtown, in a bar at the Vista Hotel, televisions blared as people stopped eating their lunch to watch the verdicts. As the words "not guilty" were read, an exultant waitress leaped in the air. "All right!" she exclaimed. Then, briefly, there was silence, then a dull murmur, as patrons exchanged glances and quietly shared their views with lunch partners.

There and elsewhere, conversations continue.

Moments after the acquittal, Rene Miller, a 43-year-old accountant, shrugged indifferently as she walked out of SRO, a crowded restaurant at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. "She dragged me down here to watch this," said Miller, pointing to a co-worker. "I thought I had better things to do."

At Howard Law School, though, Professor Jerome Shoreman said it was important to interrupt class work so students could watch the trial's final proceeding.

"It gives them a feel for the justice system," he said, "apart from the cold rules of law they learn in the classroom every day."

Seated at the bar at Poor Robert's Tavern on Connecticut Avenue NW, 26-year-old real estate agent John Lawbaugh gasped when the verdicts were read and clasped a hand over his mouth. A moment later, he said: "I am really surprised that they found him not guilty, but at the same time, I'm a little happy. I think our system worked. No one likes to see a hero in such a scandal. Obviously, there was some reasonable doubt." The jury declared Simpson not guilty. "I hope he was innocent."

Also contributing to coverage of the Washington area's reaction to yesterday's verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial were staff writers Louis Aguilar, David Aldridge, Amy Argetsinger, Steve Bates, Dan Beyers, Joan Biskupic, Bill Broadway, DeNeen L. Brown, Ruben Castaneda, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Deirdre M. Childress, D'Vera Cohn, Marcia Davis, Anthony Faiola, Peter Finn, Michael A. Fletcher, John W. Fountain, Lisa Frazier, Marcia Slacum Greene, Guy Gugliotta, Hamil R. Harris, Sari Horwitz, Toni Locy, Eugene L. Meyer, David Montgomery, Ellen Nakashima, Terry M. Neal, Ann O'Hanlon, Robert O'Harrow Jr., Peter Pae, Philip P. Pan, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Barbara J. Saffir, Dave Sell, Michael D. Shear, Todd Shields, Jackie Spinner, Valerie Strauss, Lena H. Sun, Tracy Thompson, Saundra Torry, Marylou Tousignant, Barbara Vobejda, Linda Wheeler, Debbi Wilgoren, Yolanda Woodlee and John E. Yang. CAPTION: Howard University Law School students erupt in cheers after hearing the not guilty verdicts. CAPTION: At Preston's barbershop on Georgia Avenue NW, barber Jason Lewis, center, embraces Jake Roach after the verdict. Customer Barrington Scot is at right. CAPTION: Patrons at Mister Days Sports Rock Cafe in Northwest Washington react to the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. Reaction of area residents ranged from joy to disgust. CAPTION: At Preston's barbershop on Georgia Avenue NW, barber Jason Lewis, center, embraces Jake Roach after the verdict. Customer Barrinton Scot is at right.