If death were a show horse, no one in the capital punishment ring was riding as high-steppingly as James Anders. As South Carolina's best-known prosecutor of murderers, he was on a media roll explaining why electrocuting death row inmates is a noble public service. He was interviewed for "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," ABC's "Nightline," Newsweek and Time, and quoted in The New York Times. The locals -- no-names from W-This-or-That TV or a court reporter from a Columbia newspaper -- were also given their time. Attention from the big guys would not swell Anders' head.

Anyone could aim a camera at the prosecutor's face or jam a tape recorder under his jaw and he would tell them about the glories of the death penalty in general and the absolute exquisiteness of it for James Terry Roach in particular.

Anders has prosecuted Roach and two others for the 1977 murders of two Columbia teen-agers. The state's largest newspaper called the three assailants "drug-crazed." J.C. Shaw, the ringleader, was executed a year ago. The second person, a 16-year-old, turned state's evidence, and serves a life sentence. That left Roach, who was 17 at the date of the crime. A retarded backwoods Carolina school dropout, he was to spend eight years on death row for participating -- in a still unclear way -- in a crime that shocked Columbia.

Keeping that shock alive appears to be part of Anders' mission. On Jan. 9 when I interviewed him -- both in his courthouse office and at his private club, where he lunched on steak and wine -- he couldn't find harsh enough words to depict Roach as a despicable monstrosity. "I've never met anyone meaner or crueler," he said categorically. Roach's crime was "heinous."

To bolster his point, Anders handed me snapshots taken at the woodland crime site. The body of one of the slain teen-agers, a girl of 14, was naked. Her breasts were mutilated. Sticks were inserted into the rectum and vagina. The pictures were in color and close up.

It wasn't clear whether Anders had permission from the victims' families to wave these photographs around like picture post cards. He didn't need permission, he said later. The photos were court evidence. Now, eight years later, they were good theater.

Anyone would be shocked, except it wasn't Roach who had mutilated the bodies. That person, as Anders acknowledged later, was Shaw, a mentally disturbed soldier who had returned alone to mutilate the girl's body before the police discovered it. With Shaw electrocuted, Anders, via the national media in the days before Roach's execution on Jan. 10, justified this latest of South Carolina's 243 state killings since 1912.

Anders, 44, articulate, self-assured and personally gracious, is a believer in retribution. He talks about the statue of Justice and laughs at how often defense attorneys refer to the palm leaf in her left hand while forgetting what she holds in the right hand -- a sword. He says that "the sword is for retribution." Society is entitled to it for crime, including murder.

A decade ago, when states were devising death penalty laws that the Supreme Court would be approving in 1977, prosecutors were arguing deterrence. This was a time when no executions were allowed. When they were, before 1967, less than one murderer in a thousand was getting the death penalty carried out. Now, with Roach being the 51st person executed since 1977, the advocates for capital punishment are unconcerned that they have a losing case in deterrence. Homicides have not decreased. Last year James Q. Wilson, the Harvard University criminologist, stated that "the available evidence does not establish that the death penalty has a deterrent effect."

Anders is nonchalant about that: "I don't argue deterrence anymore. Too many people have too many arguments, so it's not worth debating." Instead, ignoring evidence and facts, he supports retribution. It's blinding time: Get the eyes that took eyes.

Advocates of retribution -- getting even in the name of society's moral outrage -- offer no evidence that it enhances the humane ideals of a civilized people. Anders can confidently argue for the retribution case on national television because he knows that vengeance is in the air. Why lead the public when you can safely follow it? Polls report 2-1 support of the death penalty. In their furies, crowds routinely gather outside the prison gates at the hour of an execution to cheer the death rite. Such a group, complete with a "Fry Him" sign, came to celebrate the Roach killing.

State-sanctioned vengeance gives the government the right it denies citizens, to kill. No one can measure the accomplishments of retribution. Why not publicly boil in oil or draw and quarter murderers, as was once the practice? Or sexually mutilate their corpses? That would better satisfy the vengeance lobby. It would also assure that prosecutor Anders would make not only MacNeil/Lehrer, but also "Entertainment Tonight."

1986, Washington Post Writers Group