Just as his trial for attempted murder was about to begin, a 20-year-old West Philadelphia man pleaded guilty yesterday to shooting a rookie police officer in the face during a road stop eight months ago.

Officer Richard Decoatsworth, 21, who chased the guman for three blocks before collapsing, kept his emotions in check as he sat in the courtroom as Antonio Coulter admitted shooting him Sept. 24.

Coulter pleaded guilty to nine counts, including attempted murder and aggravated assault.

Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Benson set sentencing for June 25, at which time Coulter faces 40 years in prison for the attempted-murder charge.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Levenberg told the court that if the case had gone to trial, he would have called more than two dozen witnesses, including three teenagers who were in Coulter's car seconds before Coulter fired a saw-off shotgun into Decoatsworth's face.

He also planned to introduce testimony that a month before the incident, Coulter told a cousin he did not want to get "live-stopped any more" by police and would shoot the next officer who did.

In his statement to police, Coulter said he shot Decoatsworth because he thought the officer had seen the weapon and he "didn't want to get arrested."

Decoatsworth would have testified that he did not see or hear the shotgun blast, "but felt he had been hit in the face with a sledgehammer," the prosecutor said.

The officer was the first of six wounded by gunfire in a two-month period last fall, including Officer Chuck Cassidy, who died.

Coulter's attorney, Michael Graves, said outside court that his client "decided he want to take responsibility for what happened."

Coulter had picked up three teenage acquaintances who had had been locked out of school after arriving late and were headed to his house to play video games when he caught the attention of Decoatsworth.

Coulter pulled over at Farson Street near Arch Street and told the teens to get out of his car. Decoatworth left his vehicle and told the youths to come back.

They were returning when Coulter stood up at the driver's door of his car and fired at the officer. In his staterment, Coulter said he was aiming for Decoatsworth's head.

Although wounded, the officer gave chase, firing at least seven shots but not hitting Coulter, whose flip flops flew off as he fled.

Police found Coulter hiding in a yard near where Decoatsworth had collapsed on a stoop. The 12-gauge shotgun also was found hidden under debris.

"It was tough being in there," Decoatsworth, who has undergone four surgeries on his face and faces more, said after the hearing yesterday.

"I'm a human being, you get upset, you get emotional, you get angry but . . . you've got to tuck those things away. That's one of the hardest things to do on this job, keep your emotions aside from your work and that's what I did."

Decoatsworth plans to return to the force on limited duty soon but has not decided what he will after that except resume his career in the department.