PHOENIX, ARIZ. — THEY'VE left life behind bars and shed their prison garb, but can convicted murderers shake the public's perception that they are dangerous to society?
That question is increasingly on the minds of college admissions officers from Fort Lauderdale to Phoenix.
Concerned about lawsuits and safety on campus, admission forms are increasingly probing for information about an applicant's past.
Most recently, a law student and convicted murderer at Arizona State University in Tempe sued because the law school refused to grant his diploma. The university says he falsified information. Michael Davis says he is being discriminated against.
A similar case drew public attention last spring when Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., rescinded its offer of early acceptance to Gina Grant. Harvard officials stated that Ms. Grant's status as a convicted murderer was not as contentious as the fact that she lied on her application.
But the practice of asking prospective students if they have been convicted, pled guilty, or pled no contest to a crime challenges two fundamental American beliefs: the right of public access to higher education and the right of ex-offenders to reenter the mainstream once they have fulfilled debts to society.
''We are touching on a very difficult situation,'' says Donna Leone Hamm, wife of a second ex-convict and student at ASU. ''How do you reintegrate when the eyes of the world are accusingly focused on an ex-offender, expecting something to happen?''
In Arizona, the ASU law school refused to give a degree to Mr. Davis, a paroled felon from Texas who served nine years of a 30-year sentence for helping to kill three people in 1979, including a 14-month-old child.
When he was admitted in 1991 with top test scores and grades, the university did not ask if he had a criminal record. It wasn't until his third year that school officials discovered that he served time.
This is not the first run-in Arizona has had with convicted criminals, though. James Hamm touched off a windstorm over an ex-prisoner's right to a university education when he entered the law school in 1994.
Mr. Hamm, who also had top entrance-exam scores, was admitted even though the admissions office knew of his past conviction for murder. After a public outcry, ASU became the only public university in the state to ask applicants about their criminal records.
Since the policy revision, says ASU's Law School Dean, Richard Morgan, about a dozen students with criminal records have been allowed in the law school. But none has violent criminal histories like Hamm or Davis.
ASU's admissions form now states that answering ''yes'' to the criminal-record question does not automatically preclude admission, but the application does ask for specific information, including the nature of the crime and resolution of the case.
Mr. Morgan says the admissions office should examine an ex-offender's record carefully to determine signs of rehabilitation and whether the individual has repaid a debt to society. But he objects to a ''blanket rule'' that keeps ex-offenders from obtaining a degree. Education, he says, ''is one of the best means of rehabilitation.''
The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, meanwhile, reports that more schools are collecting information about student criminal records. No reliable data are kept, but Florida and Tennessee are two states whose schools do ask for such information.
According to the association, concerns over lawsuits are driving the trend. A school can be held liable if it has prior knowledge of students' offenses, admits them anyway, and then fails to prevent crimes they commit.
Even Mrs. Hamm, who has founded a prisoners' rights organization called Middle Ground, sees no harm in universities asking criminal-record questions.
But she is concerned with how an affirmative answer might tilt the admissions process. ''To deny [a former prisoner entrance] because he is an offender is a denial of my taxpayer right,'' she adds.
She says the public's need to know about ex-offenders on campus must be balanced against the ex-offender's ability to reintegrate.
Ultimately, she says, society must take more responsibility for raising the level of rehabilitation expected from correctional institutions.
Prisoners, she says, ''don't have many realistic dreams'' about obtaining an education.