WHEN MARION Barry was sentenced to six months in a federal pen, the general opinion in this town weary of the mayor's cocaine-sex-and-lying scandal was: Barry got about what he deserved.
But among some blacks, including politicians fed up with Barry's antics, the mayor's jail sentence relit a long-smoldering fuse.
It inflamed the theory that a white legal establishment is orchestrating a plot to "get" elected black officials.
The conspiracy theory has bounced around for 20 years since FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped and hassled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prosecutions and leaks against black politicians during the Reagan-Bush era -- plus Barry's jail sentence -- give new life to rumors of a racial vendetta.
The conspiracists -- again, not always Barry rooters -- point out that the same judge who nailed Barry let ex-White House aide Mike Deaver, convicted of a felony, go free with no jail time.
They compare Iran-contra celebrities: Lt. Col Oliver North (two felonies), given a fine and community service; ex-Admiral John Poindexter (five felony convictions), handed the same six months Barry got for a drug misdemeanor.
"What we don't like in Washington is the unfairness," Barry said Wednesday on Phil Donahue's show as supporters in the TV studio cheered.
But beyond Barry, the "white plot" theorists see the rash of stings, investigations and leaks, including a planted Justice Department slur against Rep. Bill Gray III, D-Pa., as racist hammering of black officials.
Paranoia or reality? Up front, I doubt there's a national plot engineered out of some Washington war room. When blacks like Gray are slandered, I suspect the motive is political, not racial.
But conspiracists got fresh ammo when U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson blew off at Harvard Law School, saying, in effect, he gave Barry the slammer after a mostly black jury had treated the mayor too gently.
"I'm not happy with the way the jury addressed the case," said Jackson. "Some people on the jury had their own agendas. They would not convict under any circumstances. I've never seen a stronger government case."
The way I read Judge Jackson's unprecedented candor, he took over for the jury. If the jury soft-heartedly gave Barry a pass on 13 of 14 counts, he'd compensate by giving him jail time. This from a judge who let Mike Deaver walk.
I have zero sympathy for Barry, a liar, cokehead and mayor who abetted his city's drug plague. But Judge Jackson's popping off adds fuel to the cynicism that black politicians are bull's-eyes. When a New York Times poll asks 1,000 New Yorkers if "the government deliberately singles out black officials to discredit them," a startling 77 percent of blacks say "true" or "possibly true."
Suspicions exploded at a Black Caucus forum of 20,000 participants here. U.S. Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., told of a "five-year inquisition" (three grand juries, three FBI probes, a drug agency wiretap, no indictment) against him. Mayor Richard Arrington recounted feds' repeated, futile probes of him in Birmingham, Ala. Civil rights attorney William Kunstler claimed "20 to 40 percent" of black officials targeted for corruption.
Is the conspiracy real? At lunch in the Justice Department with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who preferred to talk about his record against white-collar crime, I asked about blacks' suspicions.
"I've told Ben Hooks (NAACP director) and others, come in with evidence, I'll believe it," said Thornburgh. "My door's open. We flatly do not prosecute on racial or political bias. In the Marion Barry case, the pattern of drug use was overwhelming even without the so-called sting."
What of Justice Department statistics on investigated black officials?
"We don't keep such numbers," said Thornburgh, shrugging. "Anyway, how do you prove a negative? Or fight a wrong perception?"
True or false, the conspiracy theory feeds on apathy and anger of blacks who bitterly believe a white establishment would plot to knock off their leaders.
A popoff artist like Judge Jackson only throws gasoline on the fire.