The rate of execution of death-row prisoners in the United States is picking up, reversing a fairly steady decline since 1935. Some key opponents to the death penalty have little hope that legal challenges to the use of capital punishment will slow the number of executions. The US Supreme Court is unlikely to rule the death penalty unconstitutional, says Henry Schwarzchild, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. The courts ''follow the national mood and culture,'' he claims. ''The mood of America now is a mood of toughness.''
As a result, some key opponents are mapping a strategy that will focus more on attempts to sway public opinion against the use of the penalty.
The number of people now on death row, approximately 1,450 nationwide, is at an all-time high. Another 250 are being added every year. A growing number of condemned have used up most of their appeals. And with executions occurring more frequently, the small number of lawyers who have been handling final appeals are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up.
''I'm exhausted,'' says Scharlette Holdman, director of the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice in Tallahassee, a group opposing the death penalty. As of Nov. 8, there had been eight executions in Florida this year. She worked up to the last minute trying unsuccessfully to block them, seeking lawyer representation and making public appeals to Florida Gov. Bob Graham.
Governor Graham has told the Monitor that he believes the death penalty has a deterrent effect. But when asked, neither he nor his staff could provide a study confirming such an effect.
After reaching a record high in the US of 199 executions in 1935, use of the death penalty began a gradual decline until 1968. From 1968 through '77 there were no executions. From '77 up until '83 there were six. In 1983 alone there were five. This year, 19 people had been executed as of Nov. 8, when Timothy Palmes was put to death in Florida.
The total for executions this year is likely to reach 25, and as many as 50 people could be executed in 1985, according to Mr. Schwarzchild. California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas are holding nearly half of the condemned. All but 12 states have a death penalty, however, and most that have it also have people on death row.
At a meeting here of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, David Bruck, a South Carolina lawyer, told the small group gathered in a church basement that ''the legal news is bad.''
''The legal developments follow public opinion,'' he said. He is not optimistic that various legal challenges pending against the death penalty will have much effect. Meanwhile, he says, it is hard to find lawyers willing to represent death-row prisoners. Such cases are ''unpopular,'' he said. And most of the prisoners have no funds to pay a lawyer.
One of the legal challenges still in federal court is the argument that the death penalty is used most frequently when the victim is white. Such discrimination is unconstitutional, according to death-penalty opponents.
Mr. Bruck and other specialists familiar with crime trends predict a decrease in the number of murders committed as the nation's population ages. The greatest number of murders are committed by young persons. Use of the death penalty does not deter murder, he and many criminologists say. ''People do not go through a cost-benefit analysis'' before murdering someone, he said.
Meanwhile, the coalition is looking for ways to ''keep up the resistance without losing a sense of hope,'' the Rev. Murphy Davis told the gathering here. People on death row are considered ''disposable,'' she said. ''This is a spiritual issue.''
Howard Zehr, the newly elected chairman of the coalition, says the new thrust of the coalition should be to: (1) increase lobbying efforts at state legislatures to pass laws against use of the death penalty; (2) conduct a greater public education effort on the issue; (3) show more concern for victims of death-row prisoners. Mr. Zehr is director of the US Office of Criminal Justice for the Mennonite Central Committee in Elkhart, Ind.
Steve Daniel, a teacher who attended the meeting, bases his opposition to capital punishment on his belief in rehabilitation. ''To give up on rehabilitation of prisoners is to really lose faith in human nature. Who are we to say someone is totally unreformable?''