In the literature on close brushes with death, Willie Darden deserves a chapter of his own. In 1979, 1983, 1985 and twice in 1986, thegovernor of Florida, Robert Graham, who is now the state's junior U.S. senator, signed death warrants to send Darden, a 53-year-old black convicted of murder, to the electric chair. All executions were stayed by judges, twice with less than 24 hours left.

In early January, lawyers for Darden, a death-row inmate for 13 years, will again petition for a new trial. Two citizens -- one a Protestant minister -- recently signed affidavits stating conclusively that Darden, on the afternoon of the murder on Sept. 8, 1973, in Lakeland, Fla., had to be miles from the crime site.

The Darden case promises to return state killing and death-row law to the front pages. Executions occur so routinely -- 18 in 1986 and 25 in 1987 -- that what is only cruel and unusual punishment now needs an extra touch of injustice to ensure that protests of the killing are heard.

One voice rising to the defense of the North Carolina-born prisoner is Justice Harry Blackmun. On and off the bench, he has not tempered his views with the customary judicial niceties. In a speech to judges in July 1986, in which he called the just-completed term "the most difficult of the 16 {years}" he has been on the court, Blackmun said: "If ever a man received an unfair trial, Darden did. He may be guilty, I don't know, but he got a runaround in that courtroom."

Blackmun's familiarity with "that courtroom" was on display in his dissent a month earlier in a 5-4 decision against Darden. The prosecutor, in his summation to the jury in the 1974 trial, repeatedly smeared the defendant. He expressed a wish to see Darden "sitting here with no face, blown away by a shotgun." Darden was an "animal who should only be allowed out of his cell on a leash."

For Blackmun, these and other statements violated Darden's right to a fair trial because they were "a relentless and single-minded attempt to inflame the jury."

Of the 5-4 decision against Darden, Blackmun wrote that the opinion "reveals a Court willing to tolerate not only imperfection but a level of fairness and reliability so low it should make conscientious prosecutors cringe."

One of those on the low level was Chief Justice Warren Burger. In his opinion, as well as an earlier one, the chief said that Darden's claims were "meritless." He said also that the case had "been litigated before no fewer than 95 federal and state judges." Of Burger's arithmetic, Blackmun said, "I was interested to see I was counted four times."

That's a parry best savored by those who enjoy the subtler games of high court rivalries. In the prisons, where Darden and about 2,000 others await death, survival relies on the support of lower-ranking backers. One of these is the Rev. Joseph Ingle, cofounder of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, a Nashville-based group founded in 1974. It has 12,000 members who work to abolish the death penalty in the 36 states that retain it.

Ingle is a frequent visitor to all the death rows in the South, where most of the executions occur. He has come to know Darden and his case well. "I believe Willie is innocent of this murder charge," he says. "But we are dealing with the politics of the death penalty in this case and a poor, black man accused of murder in Florida doesn't count for much in some folks' eyes."

Two exceptions are Christine Bass and the Rev. Sam Sparks. Bass, who was not called to be a witness in the 1974 five-day trial, stated in an Oct. 1986 affidavit that "Darden was unquestionably in front of my house from 4 p.m. until very close to 5:30 the afternoon of the murder." The slaying of James Turman, a white businessman, during a robbery in his furniture store occurred at 5:30 p.m., half an hour away from the Bass home.

Sparks, a pastor in Lakeland and who was not called by Darden's lawyer, had gone to the store to minister to Mrs. Turman, arriving there at 5:55 after being phoned by a fellow pastor 25 to 30 minutes earlier. He was checking his watch repeatedly that afternoon because he had to make a 6:30 meeting.

According to Joseph Ingle, "When Christine Bass made her statement 13 years ago, the police changed the time of the crime on their report from 5:30 to 6 p.m. -- that way, they could convict Willie in spite of Ms. Bass' testimony. They didn't know about Rev. Sparks and his obsession with time that day."

No crime, not even the "heinous" kind, justifies state-sanctioned killing. For Willie Darden, there appears to be no justification for not getting a new trial. Doubts rising higher than the prison gun tower have yet to be settled.