In his first encounter with the criminal-justice system in 1991, Daniel Giddings was convicted of beating and robbing a mentally disabled man in his North Philadelphia neighborhood.

Giddings was 10 years old.

During the next seven years, Giddings was continuously in and out of juvenile institutions, where he was charged several times with assaulting staff, sending some to the hospital, according to court records.

He told a court in 2000 that he sold drugs on the corner, raised pit bulls for fighting, and gambled. He had already been shot twice and been arrested several times as a juvenile for assault, including several instances involving guns.

When he faced Common Pleas Court Judge Lynn B. Hamlin as an adult in 2000, convicted of robbing and shooting a man in the kneecaps, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Coolican said there was "absolutely no reason to believe" that it would ever be safe to release Giddings.

Hamlin, alarmed by Giddings' criminal history but impressed by his grades in finishing a high school diploma while in custody, sentenced him to six to 12 years in prison - the minimum mandatory sentence.

On Tuesday, about a month after Giddings was released from prison to a halfway house, the 27-year-old man died in a shoot-out after police said he gunned down Officer Patrick McDonald following a traffic stop. Police say Giddings delivered the fatal shots while the wounded officer lay on a North Philadelphia street.

Giddings' mother, Theresa Bryant, said yesterday that Giddings had vowed never to return to jail - that he would rather die first.

"He told me, 'I'm so happy to be free. I'll never go back,' " Bryant said in an interview at her house in North Philadelphia.

Police expressed outrage yesterday that Giddings was released from prison after serving only 10 years, during which time he had amassed a poor disciplinary record.

"He was a thug among thugs," said Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

Ramsey said the Pennsylvania Probation and Parole Board owed the families of McDonald and Officer Richard Bowes, 36, whom Giddings shot and wounded before being killed, an explanation for Giddings' release.

Giddings, who police said was charged 27 times with disciplinary problems in prison and spent 537 days in solitary confinement, was granted parole last year on the recommendation of prison officials, according to the parole board's ruling.

The board noted that Giddings' behavior had improved in the last year and that he had accepted responsibility for the offenses and expressed remorse.

But according to psychiatric evaluations that were presented in court when Giddings was sentenced in 2000, mental-health officials described him as a "highly self-centered" and manipulative young man.

Coolican noted in the sentencing that he had reviewed thousands of juvenile files, and usually violent behavior is ascribed to impulsive actions.

"They don't say that about Daniel Giddings," Coolican told the court. "They say he is not impulsive. He plans and deliberately carries out intentional acts against other inmates and staff."

Coolican, now an assistant prosecutor in Syracuse, N.Y., said yesterday he had followed the news from Philadelphia with sadness. "Giddings has been assaulting people all his life, both in and out of institutions," he said.

Police said that Giddings absconded from the Community Corrections Center at 1221 Bainbridge St. a week after his Aug. 18 release from prison.

On Aug. 27, police pulled him over in North Philadelphia for traffic violations in a car they later learned was stolen.

Giddings fled on foot, ducked into a house, and got into a violent struggle with police, sending one Highway Patrol officer down the stairs of the house. Giddings escaped and police issued a warrant for his arrest.

His family said yesterday that police broke into their house two weeks ago searching for Giddings.

"They kicked in the door looking for him," said Bryant, his mother, standing in front of a new white doorway to her house.

Giddings' sister, Latanya Giddings, 32, said her brother grew up without a father, a criminal who was in jail for much of his son's youth.

"It was the street life that changed him," said Latanya Giddings. "You hang with the wrong people when you're coming up. . . . They get angry at the cops."

The family complained that Giddings was unfairly described in the news media.

"They acted like he wasn't loving and didn't care about his family," Latanya Giddings said while clutching a photo of her brother lying at the morgue. "They make us hate them."

Anne Williams, 33, who identified herself as Giddings' girlfriend, said: "He loved children. He wasn't bad."

Another woman, Sheena Faison, 29, who identified herself as a best friend of Giddings, said: "He was not an animal. He had a good heart."

She pointed to a 9-year-old girl dressed in a pink hoodie hobbling across the street on crutches and said she was one of three children whom Giddings had scrambled to visit immediately after getting out of prison.

Giddings' journey to prison began in 1998, when he was charged with robbing and shooting Robert Vargas, 31, during an attempted carjacking at Seventh and Butler Streets.

In the trial before Judge Hamlin in 2000, Vargas said that Giddings reached into the car and shot him in the legs after the carjacking.

Giddings took the stand and testified that he shot Vargas in self-defense, claiming that he was a street-corner drug dealer for Vargas and owed him $500.

Hamlin convicted him during a bench trial.

After Giddings was sentenced, he filed a jailhouse protest with the court that claimed that his defense attorney, Harry B. Seay, had failed to file an appeal on his behalf.

During the appeal proceedings, Seay testified that he had told Giddings that the six- to 12-year sentence was the best he could expect for a man with such a bad criminal record. He had faced a potential sentence of 221/2 to 45 years in prison.

"I was very honest and told him that the sentence that he had received, based on his record, was a gift," Seay testified. The court denied Giddings' appeal.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.