The Maryland Senate, after a brief but passionate debate recalling the traditional arguments surrounding the death penalty, defeated a move yesterday to prohibit the death penalty from being imposed on minors. The vote was 26 to 21.

State Sen. Decatur Trotter (D-Prince George's), a foe of the death penalty, introduced the measure, saying that the death penalty is morally wrong, unfairly applied and ineffective as a deterrent to crime.

He said minors especially should be exempted because many juvenile criminals are the products of violent upbringing, but have the potential to reform their lives.

"Even though they are 17, 15, and 16, and they commit murder, they are, to some degree, not responsible," he said. "They have been sexually abused, they have had parents who were not parents. They had a society that did not care."

Opponents argued that the state's death penalty law contains sufficent protections for any lawbreaker, regardless of age.

They also argued that changing the law might violate the uniform applicability doctrine required by the Supreme Court and might encourage young criminals to commit murder.

Currently, life imprisonment or the death penalty can be imposed for first-degree murder, a killing that is premeditated, involves torture, or is committed as part of a felony.

"It's an incentive to people who commit murder," said Sen. Frederick Malkus (D-Cambridge). They will say 'If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it soon because I might be over-age.' "

Others said the bill would lead to abolition of the death penalty, but supporters said that of the 39 states that provide for capital punishment, 10 allow minors to be exempted.

Only one minor is on death row in Maryland: James Trimble, 17. The state has not executed anyone since 1961; it last executed a minor in 1926.