Pearson says now that she's guilty only of providing a friend with a place to stay. She says she never allowed drugs or cash proceeds from narcotics sales to be stashed in her condominium.

"No one came to my house with packs," she says. "And who would store drugs where they laid their head? They wouldn't. That's rule No. 2."

Pearson's attorney, Benjamin Sutley, thinks prosecutors had little solid evidence against his client. (The Baltimore state's attorney's office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Sutley noted that Pearson was charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony. Her case was assigned to state court instead of to federal court, where convictions carry stiffer penalties. And Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill placed the actress on probation, which typically is reserved for minor offenses, and is allowing her to leave the state.

"The state didn't have a very strong case factually," Sutley said.

"If we'd gone to trial, I think she would have been found not guilty, but the wait to go to trial is well over a year. It was costing Felicia $400 for every week that she wore the electronic monitor, and she wouldn't get that money back if she were acquitted. She wanted to move ahead with her life, so we decided to plead guilty."

For the next three years, Pearson will have to check in regularly with her probation officer. If she stays out of trouble, she'll stay out of jail. If she messes up, she faces a prison term of nearly seven years

Wherever she goes, Pearson will always wear the mark of Baltimore's toughest streets. It's not at all clear that she'd want to erase those marks, even if she could. Those same streets — and cemeteries — contain some of the people she loves the most.

Her left arm bears an elaborate tattoo of a cross and the words, "RIP Arnold." It's a tribute, she says, to Arnold Lonly, the neighbor she knew as "Uncle" who gave her the nickname of "Snoop" because she reminded him of the beagle in the comic strip "Peanuts."

"He's always saying cute things," Lonly told the child. "He's sweet, but he's sad."

It was Lonly, she writes in her autobiography, who shielded her from police after the 1995 shooting and later visited her in prison. Lonly was killed in 1998 when a drug deal went bad.

And some childhood lessons are so ingrained that they might as well be tattooed inside her skull.

It's important to Pearson, for instance, to make it clear that she has not spoken to police about and will not testify against any other men and women charged as a result of the March 10 drug sting. The only person she ever implicated in a crime, she says, is herself.

"Rule No. 1," she says, "is that you don't snitch."

But Pearson isn't merely a product of the streets, and she can't be reduced to her rap sheet. Far from it.

Part of the disconnect that some people feel upon meeting the actress begins, but does not end, with her appearance.

Even standing on tiptoes, Pearson barely hits 5 foot 2. She has the large eyes and delicate facial features that remind one observer of a silent movie star, another of a Renaissance portrait.

It's difficult to imagine this woman as "muscle," difficult to imagine her harming anyone — which is precisely what made her enforcer character on "The Wire" so chilling. Horror writer Stephen King described Pearson's portrayal as "the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series."

Fiercely loyal herself, Pearson inspires loyalty in others. All her life, she has had a knack for finding people who want to help her, perhaps because of the way she combines a certain vulnerability with an unstoppable determination to please those whose good opinion she craves.

Before he became a writer and producer, Ed Burns spent 20 years with the Baltimore Police Department investigating drug violations and homicides. Burns has seen plenty of hardened criminals in his day, and he's not easily deceived.