RICHMOND -- At the 1972 scene of her mother-in-law's murder, Marie Deans recalls being comforted by a well-meaning policeman friend. " 'Don't worry, Marie,' he told me, 'We'll get the bastard and fry him.' " No, you won't, Deans said to herself about the escaped murderer who killed her husband's mother. One death was enough. For Deans, an opponent of capital punishment, the homicide of a family member was not a moment to alter her belief in the sanctity of life. The murderer, who killed Deans's mother-in-law in Charleston, S.C., had been on the lam from a prison in Maine, a state with no death penalty. South Carolina prosecutors, eager to revive executions, sought to extradite the killer from Maine where he had been returned. Deans and her husband promised to work against the extradition and the likely death penalty to follow. They succeeded. Not long after, Deans founded Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Her work with the organization -- more than 100 families currently are members -- defies the stereotype of murder victims' families as pro-death penalty and supporters of politicians who call for more executions. "He had a family, too," Deans says of the man who killed her mother-in-law. "If he was executed, it would be another murder. It would be worse in a way, because he would be put on death row and the family would have been told every day for 10 years -- or eight years or six years or however long it takes -- that he was going to be killed. I think that's worse." Deans expanded her work in 1983 to become director of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, a Richmond public-interest group affiliated with the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons in Nashville. She has worked with more than 400 death-row men and women, and with their families. Deans recruits lawyers, agitates in the courts and in wardens' offices for medical and educational programs, and regularly visits the rows to offer forgotten prisoners the warmth and love few ever had on the way to becoming killers. It's on the last point -- how do murderers get that way -- that Deans offers an opinion that only a regular visitor to death rows could form. In her office last week, she said: "I have yet to find a case where there wasn't a red flag thrown up years ago -- in grammar school or somewhere -- where a kid said, 'I'm in trouble, help me.' He gave us the message loud and clear and we didn't pay any attention. And he ended up, years later, going down and down and killing someone. Let me tell you something. I resent the hell out of that as a member of a murder victim's family. ... These governors, these prosecutors, Ronald Reagan and George Bush all getting up and saying, 'I care about victims, I want the death penalty.' If they cared about victims, they would have taken care of that victimized kid when he was 6 years old and prevented a homicide later." Deans, who is 49 and now a single parent, is from a monied Old South Charleston family. An early sign of unconventionality occurred when in college she organized Republican voter-registration drives. Her parents were prominent Democrats. For that and other aberrations -- including putting her son into a public school that had a majority of black students -- they legally disowned her, she says. What Deans may have lost in the cutoff from her natural family, she has more than gained in ties to people on death row. Many see her as a sister or mother. Eight men have asked her to stay with them until being led off to the execution chamber. A death-row prisoner in the Mecklenburg, Va., Correctional Center, about two hours south of Richmond, has known Deans for six years and says of her: "I couldn't understand how somebody who was a member of a murder victim's family could sit down across the table from me and tell me that I wasn't evil, that the acts I did may have been evil, but I wasn't evil. I was a human being and people cared. We spent hundreds of hours talking and communicating." Hundreds more are likely, and with no shortage of other people to work with. The rapidly rising death-row population is nearing 2,200, the highest in U.S. history. A goal of Deans's counseling is to arouse in the individual murderer a sense of horror at what he did and have that lead to atonement of some kind: "So long as the murderer does not acknowledge his responsibility by seeing his or her victim as a human being and recognizing the humanity of his or her victim, society's punishment is a useless act of vengeance. That is not to say that some murderers do not come to recognize their victims' humanity and accept responsibility for what they have done. Some do, but they do it in spite of the death penalty and prison." Deans, the angel of America's death rows, is aware that some people dismiss her as a saint and others as an emotional freak. She is neither. She's no more than a pragmatist wanting to decrease the nation's violence, and what better place to work than death row where violence is on the increase.