Capital punishment: the view from death row; Slow Coming Dark, By Doug Magee. New York: The Pilgrim Press. $10.95.

There can be only two reasons to support capital punishment today: deterrence of crime or retribution. The logic of the first can be argued, the morality of the second debated. But until one comes face to face with those individuals whom society would kill, it all remains an intellectual exercise.

"Slow Coming Dark" presents a dozen interviews with men and women on death row. The author, a photographer for newsmagazines, is obviously trying to build a case in opposition to capital punishment. But the questions he asks -- and their answers -- do not gloss over the sometimes hideous crimes for which the respondents are facing death.

In fact they illustrate just how complex and troubling the problem is. It is not enough, one can only conclude, to ask, "What about the victims?" For any answer here only begs the tougher question: "Doesn't the calculated execution of criminals by society deny the sacredness of life and in fact demoralize and brutalize mankind further?"

One young man in Texas, sentenced to die for killing a young boy (a crime he says he did not commit), likens it to a rock thrown in a pool, the waves going out long after the center of that pool has become calm, violence begetting violence.

The question is seldom asked of them by Magee -- it doesn't really need to be -- but there is no sense that the crime for which they face death would have been prevented had they stopped to consider the punishment they might face. Instead, many feel being locked up is far worse than a quick and final end.

As one says: "Death is no punishment. . . . As far as revenge is concerned, if that's society's idea of capital punishment, they'd get a lot more revenge out of keeping a man in prison for life."

There have been more than 11,000 documented executions in America since Colonial days. The actual figure is probably twice that many. The United States is one of the very few "advanced" countries that still execute criminals, and the current trend is toward more state-sanctioned killing.

It's a time when Americans -- individually and collectively -- have to face those fellow human beings whom they would kill. This book is a good start.

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