MISSING WITNESSES. An impromptu protest against police brutality. And a judge's unexplained recusal.

For a preliminary hearing that got postponed, there was no shortage of news and controversy yesterday surrounding three shooting suspects featured in a videotaped police beating.

The morning began with a palpably expectant and anxious courtroom crowd of family and friends of the three defendants: Dwayne "Lionel" Dyches, 24; Brian Hall, 23; and Pete Hopkins, 19.

Hall - the only one out on bail - hobbled into court aided by a cane and a circle of relatives.

Police allege that Hall, Dyches and Hopkins participated in a triple shooting on May 5 and then fled in a car, which was later stopped by officers who kicked, punched and stomped on the three men. The beating was videotaped by a Fox 29 news helicopter.

The hearing came as police reported a different account of the shooting, further heating an already boiling pot.

"You can't change the story and cover up for police cruelty to blacks," Paula Peebles shouted in a hallway outside the courtroom. Peebles is chairwoman of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network, a civil-rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has called the taped beating "worse than Rodney King."

During a May 6 news conference, Police Commissioner Cha-rles H. Ramsey said a team of undercover narcotics officers saw four men get out of a gold Mercury Grand Marquis. The foursome walked up to a group of people standing on a corner in the city's Feltonville neighborhood. One of the four opened fire. The shooter fled on foot and his three companions ran back to the Marquis and took off, with police in pursuit.

Earlier this week, when a Daily News reporter inquired if the shooter was still at large and asked for a description of the gunman, Police Chief Inspector Anthony DiLacqua said: "There was apparently some misinformation that the actual triggerman was not arrested."

DiLacqua then identified Pete Hopkins, the front-seat passenger in the Marquis, as the shooter.

"There may have been a fourth male on the scene who walked away or whatever, but we are charging Pete Hopkins with the shooting," DiLacqua said Wednesday.

An undercover cop and a civilian witness say they saw Hopkins pull the trigger, according to Di-Lacqua and Ramsey.

In an interview Thursday, Ramsey blamed the initial misinformation on demands from the media for an immediate explanation of what led to the car stop.

"We tried to get it out to you guys in the media as quickly as we could," Ramsey said. "But the reason why sometimes you like to wait until you get everybody interviewed is so that you make sure you got the story correct."

At yesterday's scheduled preliminary hearing, the prosecutor on the case asked the judge for a continuance because the three Feltonville men wounded in the shooting who were slated to testify against Dyches, Hall and Hopkins didn't show up.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Sweeney said she had personally talked with two of the shooting victims and with the mother of the third and confirmed their appearances.

"All three failed to come without explanation," Sweeney said.

When asked by reporters if the witnesses were perhaps afraid to show, Sweeney said: "I couldn't begin to speculate about why they didn't come."

City Municipal Court Judge Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde issued bench warrants for the shooting victims and set a new hearing date of July 17.

Defense attorneys then asked Frazier-Lyde to consider their request to lower bail for Dyches and Hopkins, previously set at $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively. The judge recused herself, telling attorneys she couldn't conduct a bail hearing because of a conflict. She did not elaborate publicly.

The postponement evoked anger from those in the courtroom crowd, which then spilled out into the lobby of the 24th and 25th police district headquarters, on Whitaker Avenue near Luzerne Street, where a mini-protest rally erupted.

"This is police brutality at its worst," shouted Yolanda Dyches, aunt to defendant Dwayne Dyches. "What are we going to do? We need to stand up for justice!"

She wore a T-shirt that read: "Police Brutality - When Will It End?" Others in the crowd wore shirts that read: "I'm stressed, overworked, underpaid, need counseling. Who can I beat?"

The shirt was a reference to Ramsey and Mayor Nutter's comments that at the time of the beating, officers were stressed out and possibly in need of counseling over the May 3 death of Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

Last night, at a meeting inside a North Philly recreation center, community leaders circulated a petition that called on Ramsey and Nutter to meet with residents to discuss the Fox News video and police brutality in general.

Ramsey pointed out that there is a pending criminal case involving the shooting suspects and a pending criminal probe by the District Attorney's Office into the actions of the officers seen on the tape.

"We'll let the cards fall where they may," Ramsey said Thursday, "but I don't have any intention of going to a community meeting and getting into a public discussion about the issue." *