To rebuild her life, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson had to destroy her reputation.
The actress who portrayed a cold-blooded killer so memorably on three seasons of the HBO cable series "The Wire" pleaded guilty this month to a crime she says she didn't commit.
In exchange for her conviction on a misdemeanor count of conspiracy to sell heroin, the 31-year-old Pearson received her freedom. And she swears that when her face appears in public in the future, it will be because of her acting accomplishments, not her legal troubles.
"I'm not a criminal," she says.
"Don't make me into one. I pleaded guilty, but that doesn't make me guilty. I made a decision in my life to do what was best for me without involving or implicating anyone else. Don't use my background against me. Let me move on."
Pearson presents something of a conundrum. For those who know only her public face as it is depicted in court records, on the cable television series and from her 2007 biography, "Grace After Midnight," two contradictory portraits emerge.
There's the former street kid known as "Snoop" with the past she'd just as soon forget. In her autobiography, she admits selling drugs and committing crimes that were at times violent.
And then there's the young woman who prefers to be called "Felicia." Described by friends as "gentle" and "a good person," she wants more than anything to justify their faith in her.
"I come from nothing," Pearson says, "but I'm going to do the right thing."
The "nothing" refers to her origins. Born May 18, 1980, she was a premature, crack-addicted infant who weighed just 3 pounds, according to the autobiography, which was co-written with David Ritz. On her only unsupervised visit, Pearson's biological mother, Loretta Chase, stripped the toddler, locked her in a dark closet and sold her party dress for drugs.
Pearson writes that she witnessed her first slaying when she was just 10 or 11 years old, and a man who was running for his life tripped over her bicycle, sprawling in the street. Another man approached carrying a gun.
"Just like that, he pumped four shots into the dude's head," Pearson writes. "Never had seen a murder before. Never had seen anyone shot up right in front of my eyes, inches from where I was standing."
After the killer threw away the weapon, a 9 mm handgun, the girl picked it up and took it home.
By age 13, she admits in the book, she was a fledgling thug and was paid $100 to beat up a woman, breaking her leg and a shoulder.
According to court records, she was just 14 when she fatally shot another girl (Pearson says it was self-defense), and she didn't step out of jail for more than five years.
After Pearson was freed and couldn't find employers willing to hire a felon, she turned to dealing drugs. She concedes that she continued to sell cocaine and heroin during her first season on "The Wire."
"That first season, I was an extra," she says. "They were only paying me $50. When they brought me back as a regular, I shut down my shops. I haven't sold any drugs since 2004."
But Baltimore law enforcement officials weren't convinced. They continued to view Pearson with suspicion, especially once the television series ended. Pearson made the news in 2008 after she allegedly witnessed a killing and was briefly arrested in an effort to compel her testimony. The defendant later pleaded guilty to the stabbing, so Pearson wasn't required to make a statement.
On March 10, she was among 63 people arrested in a predawn drug raid by city police and federal agents, provoking international headlines about life imitating art.