Canadians are soft on crime, at least by American standards: There is no death penalty here, no minimum sentences, and convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving only a third of their sentences. They even still believe in rehabilitation.

But as Karla Homolka discovered last week, there are limits to the Canadian capacity for understanding and forgiveness.

Homolka, 29, and her husband, Paul Bernardo, 36, admitted drugging and raping Karla's younger sister Tammy two days before Christmas 1990. The 16-year-old choked on her own vomit and died. The next year, they kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered two teenage girls, recording most of it on home video. So horrified was the country with the depravity of their acts--and so extensive was the media coverage--that the couple became Canada's most infamous criminals.

Although Bernardo was convicted of two murders and sentenced to life in prison, Homolka got off with a 12-year sentence after agreeing to testify against her now former husband. It was only after the plea bargain was struck that police discovered the videotapes that revealed Homolka to be anything but the battered and manipulated wife that she had claimed to be. Public anger over the plea bargain was so intense that the government was forced to call for a judicial inquiry.

Now, Homolka and Bernardo have come crashing back into public consciousness. In September, Bernardo finally filed an appeal of his conviction, claiming rulings by the trial judge prejudiced the jury against his claim that it was really Karla who had strangled Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. And two weeks ago, a judge ordered Bernardo's original lawyer to stand trial on charges that he had obstructed justice by waiting months to tell police about the sex tapes that he had retrieved from the ceiling in the couple's apartment. This month, the producers of the American television show "Law & Order" began producing an episode inspired by the case.

But what really set things off was the revelation that Homolka had recently filed a suit alleging that her rights were violated when the warden of her minimum security prison denied her request to be transferred to a halfway house for female offenders in Montreal, in anticipation of her parole.

"I do not think it in my best interests, or anybody else's, for me to be released . . . after eight years' incarceration without any type of gradual release to a place where I have never been and do not know anyone," Homolka wrote in her five-page, handwritten application to the warden, photocopies of which were splashed across the front page of the Toronto Star and several other newspapers.

Homolka told the warden that, while in prison, she had earned a degree in psychology from Queen's University, one of Canada's best, and hoped to start working on another in criminology this fall. She noted that she had also received individual counseling and completed programs on self-esteem, anger management and dealing with abuse and trauma.

"I learned to get rid of my mistrust, self-doubt, misplaced guilt and defense mechanisms," she wrote of the courses. "I am now completely in touch with my inner feelings. My self-esteem is quite high."

Suddenly, the lines at the radio talk shows lit up in anger, nasty letters poured in to newspapers, and columnists shifted into high dudgeon.

"L'il Miss Psychopath," sniffed Patricia Pearson in the National Post. In the Toronto Star, Rosie DiManno called her an "unrepentant sadist." Canoe, a popular Canadian Web site, reported that 95 percent of the respondents in its unscientific poll favored putting Homolka back in jail and throwing away the key.

Even former jurors got into the act. After reading the letters in the paper, Tina Daenzer told the Toronto Sun that Homolka takes "not one iota of responsibility for what she did." Tim Danson, a lawyer representing the French and Mahaffy families, was on all the news shows, declaring Homolka to be "without a scintilla of remorse."

Christie Blatchford, the Jimmy Breslin of Canadian journalism, took the occasion to recall the day Homolka was grilled on the stand by Bernardo's lawyer, who wanted to know how she could have sat in her bedroom quietly reading a book while one of the victims was being raped and sodomized one floor below.

"Mr. Rosen," Homolka snapped, "a lot of people can do more than one thing at once."

In Montreal, meanwhile, residents in the tony Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood where the halfway house is located began a petition drive to foreclose any possibility that Homolka might run into them at the local coffee shop or cross paths with their children on the way to school.

"I am a Christian, and I feel bad saying this, but she's evil," one resident told the Montreal Gazette. "We don't want her kind here." Another vowed to put her home up for sale if Homolka were to move in.

Surveying this communal vitriol from his perch at the University of Ottawa, Julian Roberts, a professor of criminology and an expert in public opinion on criminal justice issues, said it was out of character for Canadians but not surprising.

"There are limits to Canadian tolerance," said Roberts, "and these two are far beyond those limits. For many Canadians, this application for early release was simply the last straw."

Apparently, Homolka came to the same conclusion. Last Thursday, she withdrew her suit without comment. No doubt she was hoping things would quiet down by July 2001, when after serving two-thirds of her sentence, she would automatically be entitled to parole unless she was deemed to be still a danger to the community.

But whenever Homolka gets out, Roberts said it is doubtful she will ever be able to reintegrate herself into Canadian society. "It's fair to say she'll be in danger of constant harassment, if not something worse."

CAPTION: A suit filed by Karla Homolka, shown in 1993, which requests a transfer from prison to a halfway house, sparked outrage among normally forgiving Canadians.