Sentence was pronounced in an interesting murder trial in Prince George's County on Friday. I am trying to understand the case, and need your help.

If you read about it, perhaps you can give me some guidance. If you didn't what follows may help you catch up with a few basic facts in the story.

Police and prosecutors said that three "execution type murders" took plce in the wake of a drug theft. Five people were charged with the crimes. The first of them to stand trial, a 25-year-old man, was found guilty. On Friday, the judge pronounced sentence: "three life terms and 180 years, to be served consecutively."

Court officials called it the stiffest sentences in memory, and it is easy to see why. One who has even a causal acquaintanceship with the meanings of English words will understand that, in punishment for the first murder, the 25-year-old was sentenced to remain in jail for the rest of his life. Only at the end of his life will he be permitted to begin serving a second consecutive "life term" for the second murder. And not until both these lifetimes have ended will his incarcertation begin to count against the third murder. The 180 years for kidnaping and other minor crimes will have to wait until the prisoner has completed his third "lifeterm" for murder.

What I need help with is this: Am I supposed to praise the severity of this sentence or criticize it?

Should I write: "Thank heaven there is at least one judge who knows how to deal with violent criminals. Thank heaven he agrees we must punish them severely. It is the only language these hoodlums understand. If we make examples of a few of them, perhaps the others will get the message. Perhaps severe punishment will act as a deterrent."

Or should I write: "This is cruel and unusual punishment. It is uncivilized. After a man has served a 'life' sentence, how can the government be so heartless as to keep his corpse in jail for another lifetime, and then for still another lifetime, and then for 180 years for good measure? One 'life' sentence ought to be enough. There is no point in flogging a dead horse."

Before you advise me, perhaps I ought to tell you what the very last paragraph of our news story revealed. After I do, it might occur to you that neither of the suggested comments is valid.

What that final paragraph said was: "A spokesman for the Maryland Parole Commission said that under state law, anyone sentenced to life imprisonment is eligible for parole after serving 15 years. As a rule, the spokesman said, consecutive life sentences are treated as one sentece."

Now there's a fine state of affairs! We accept the thesis that a judge must have wide latitude in sentencing because "no two cases are exactly alike" and the judge must therefore have a means of "making the punishment fit the crime."

Then we set up a system that undercuts a judge's authority to enfore a long sentence. The judge may say "three life terms plus 180 years," but if a parole board says 15 years is enough, the 25-year-old will be back on the street at age 40 - and the judge can go whistle if he doesn't like it.

Under these circumstances, what difference does it make What the judge decrees?

The sentence can be 15 years, one life term, three life terms, or 33 life terms plus 987 years and four days. After 15 years, the jail time that will actually be served will be determined by the parole commission, not by the trained jurist especially assigned by the community to listen to first-hand testimony and sit in judgement on the case.

This is but one of the major flaws in our system of criminal justice. It has drawn the attention fo lawyers and laymen alike, but progress toward reform has been slow and painful. It is high time we began wondering how we ever got into this mess - and what's the best way of getting out.