With the nation's highest murder rate - 385 committed so far this year - as the backdrop, the District of Columbia will vote on a death penalty initiative today.

If passed, it would be one of the most sweeping capital punishment laws in the nation. Thirty-six states have the death penalty. Juveniles and the mentally retarded would not be exempt in D.C., and judges would be required to follow a jury's recommendation of a death sentence. The mayor would be able to commute a death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Controversial enough on its own, the issue here is complicated by the fact that Congress passed a bill forcing the District to put the referendum before city voters.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D) of Alabama sponsored the bill after one of his aides was murdered on Capitol Hill.

Under the Constitution, Congress retains final authority over the District, and the issue of home rule is a constant flash point between elected city officials and Congress.

By imposing the death penalty question on the District, Congress hit a doubly sensitive point. Studies have found that, under the death penalty, disproportionate numbers of the poor and minorities are executed. These are two very large constituencies in the District.

The Washington Post called the referendum "a product of a colonial mentality." Opponents of the referendum are campaigning not just on the morality of the issue, but on what they call racially tinged, heavy-handed treatment by Congress.

Polls show citizens here are about evenly divided on the issue.

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