The Fairfax County jurors were told how the Rolland family -- father, mother and five of their six children -- was driving home after watching the fireworks display at the Washington Monument. Again and again, they were told how the father and son were shot and killed by a motorist after a traffic altercation.

After they were convinced that 27-year-old Roger Whitney was guilty of the murders, the jurors asked the judge for information on sentences and parole eligibility. There was silence. Under Virginia law, the judge was forbidden to answer their questions.

The jurors agonized over giving Whitney the death penalty, then settled on two life sentences in the 1971 case. Today, 16 years and one escape attempt later, Whitney has been paroled from prison, and the jurors have been left muttering a familiar refrain in Virginia: Why wouldn't they tell us about parole?

The question has fueled a movement to obtain "truth in sentencing" by giving juries more information. At the same time, a related debate is continuing over whether Virginia's unusual system of allowing juries to impose sentences in criminal cases should be abolished.

Only Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas allow juries to determine sentences as well as guilt or innocence for those with jury trials. Other states, such as Maryland, authorize jury sentencing only in capital murder cases.

Under Virginia's system, which was born in 1776 out of Colonial distrust of judges, the presiding judge has the authority to decrease, but not increase, a jury's sentence. However, judges are generally reluctant to do so because they believe that the jury's sentence reflects a community's sentiments about crime and punishment.

Although proponents of truth-in-sentencing laws favor jury sentencing because the public participates in the process, they argue that juries are denied the proper tools -- information about parole eligibility, prospects for rehabilitation and criminal background.

"In this day of truth in packaging we ought to have truth in sentencing," said Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., echoing a popular view among prosecutors across the state. "That jury ought to have some idea of what they're doing -- and they don't."

During criminal trials, prosecutors and defense attorneys will pull out all the stops to help the jury determine guilt or innocence -- props, experts, eyewitness accounts. Afterward, the judge gives the jury detailed, written instructions about the law and requirements for conviction.

The Whitney case was no different. The 12 jurors were told what happened at Columbia Pike and Sleepy Hollow Road in Annandale on July 5, 1971. (Washington's annual fireworks display had been delayed a day.) They were told how Whitney's car began tailgating the Rollands' station wagon, how the father got out of his car to admonish Whitney, how a fight began and how the eldest son left the car to help his father.

The jury believed that Whitney, an unemployed taxi driver, was guilty of the murders of Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Rolland Sr., 41, and William (Bud) Rolland Jr., 19, but they were not sure how to sentence Whitney.

They sent a list of questions to the judge: "Which term sentence requires the largest period of imprisonment -- life or 99 years? Are there any term sentences which are not subject to parole? Are dual sentences, such as Whitney could receive, always consecutive? If not, who decides? What is the implication of the 'one day' in a sentence of '99 years plus one day'?"

The judge was not allowed to answer, even though it was clear that the jurors were confusing Virginia's system with that of other states.

"That jury wanted to know, and we would not tell them," said Horan, who prosecuted Whitney. "Here we are sitting there. I know, the judge knows and the defense attorney knows. What's so unfair about telling them? Is it unfair to say when he will be eligible, but he may not make it?"

Despite state law forbidding consideration of parole during sentencing, studies show that juries consider it anyway, using whatever perceptions they have gained outside the courtroom -- often through newspapers, television and friends.

In a capital murder case in Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit recently sympathized with jurors' dilemma. In its opinion, the court said, the trial judge erred in telling the jury that parole is "no concern of yours" and not allowing the defendant to question prospective jurors about their understanding of parole law.

Opponents of truth-in-sentencing laws argue that parole eligibility is too speculative and that it is impossible to know someone's prospects for rehabilitation at the time of sentencing. They maintain that the jury's job is to sentence the offense, not the offender. Moreover, they argue that the judge has access to presentence reports and has the authority to decrease an excessive jury verdict.

As in years past, there are bills before the Virginia General Assembly to change the system. One cosponsored by Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington) calls for a bifurcated system that would enable juries to have such information before sentencing in most felony cases. In a bifurcated trial, the jury hears evidence and returns its verdict; if the defendant is guilty, a separate hearing is held to present sentencing evidence. Holland and others argue that giving jurors additional information can help avoid disparities in sentences, a common complaint in the state.

All 37 states with death penalties use bifurcated trials in capital murder cases. Whitney was charged with capital murder, but the trial was not bifurcated because state law at the time did not require it, Horan said.

Some of the few states with jury sentencing, such as Kentucky, have passed truth-in-sentencing laws. In 1986, Todd Hollenbach III, then the chief prosecutor in Louisville, led a "battle royal" in the state legislature to switch to a bifurcated system. The change, he said, has produced more guilty pleas as defendants have become wary of the knowledge juries now possess, particularly about parole eligibility.

While some in Virginia are pushing for truth in sentencing, others are advocating that sentencing by juries be abolished in favor of sentencing by judges. They argue that no matter how much information a jury gets, it will never have the training or experience of a judge. Sentencing should be done by professionals, they maintain.

They point out that most felony offenders in the state are already sentenced by judges because a large percentage of defendants plead guilty and others waive their right to a jury.

In 1986, only about 6 percent of all sentences imposed on convicted felons were handed down by juries, according to the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services. However, it found that the rate was much higher for extremely serious cases, with about 38 percent of sentences in murder cases imposed by juries.

Overall, juries have a reputation of being tougher than judges in sentencing. For that reason, Horan, for example, exercises his right to veto attempts by defendants to waive their right to a jury in drug cases and other crimes of violence. The result is more guilty pleas and cries from defense attorneys that the prosecutor has terrorized their clients.

Yet, there are cases in which juries are more lenient, just as there are great variances in the way individual judges sentence. Sentencing guidelines are being studied in the state as a way to solve the broader problem of disparities in sentences.

In a 1980 study, the American Bar Association called jury sentencing in noncapital cases "an anachronism that has outlived its original justifications," according to Thomas C. Smith, associate director of the ABA's Criminal Justice Section.

The ABA cited many reasons for its opposition to jury sentencing, among them: The jury receives less information than the judge, including presentence reports; there may be a temptation to compromise in sentencing because 12 jurors must arrive at one conclusion on guilt or innocence; sentencing disparities are inevitable because jurors have no basis for comparison with similar cases, and defense attorneys find themselves in the awkward position of arguing leniency as well as their client's innocence.

Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria), cosponsor of an unsuccessful bill seeking judicial sentencing in Virginia, said judges are more inclined to consider what he termed the proper ingredients of sentencing: punishment, rehabilitation and deterrence. "An improper ingredient is vengeance," said Cohen. "Juries are more prone to vengeance than judges."

Tennessee switched to judicial sentencing in 1982 with more controversy over the mechanics of sentencing than over who should be doing it, said David L. Raybin, a defense attorney in Nashville. The result was new sentencing guidelines for judges aimed at devoting the state's prison space to the most serious offenders, Raybin said.

Eventually, jury sentencing "will be a thing of the past," predicted Raybin, noting that states using jury sentencing have always been in the minority. Virginia officials "are going to have to come to that conclusion."

Despite the complaints and recommendations, the state has clung steadfastly to the traditional system. Horan says jury sentencing has endured because there has never been a consensus on how to change it and because jurors express the community's sentiment of what punishment should be. "You get some feel for what that crowd on the street feels," he said.

For now, Clerk of the Fairfax Circuit Court Warren Barry is considering an unusual approach to "educate" the public. He wants to tell potential jurors about the parole system and sentences during their orientation. "I'm going to preach to the congregation, so to speak," said Barry.

His audience would be people like those on the Whitney panel, one of whom said he was generally aware of parole but had no "inkling" that Whitney could be released in 16 years.

"I was sick to my stomach when I read {after the trial} when he'd be eligible for parole," said one of the jurors, who asked that his name be withheld after learning that Whitney was paroled on Sept. 29.

Some critics suggest that the problem is not confined to the state's sentencing practices and includes a parole system that would release in 16 years someone who not only killed two people but also helped take several prison guards hostage and attempted to escape from the Virginia State Penitentiary.

According to records at the Circuit Court in Richmond, five years were added to Whitney's sentence in the Rolland murders after he was convicted on the escape charge.

Contacted at her home recently, Virginia Rolland said she was "shocked" to learn that the man who killed her husband and son had been released. Rolland, who no longer lives in the Washington area, said members of her family were told that they would be notified when Whitney was up for parole so they could express their views. They say that they were not.

Now a grandmother, Rolland, who has not remarried, was philosophical about Whitney.

"I don't think about him too much. I thought he was safely put away," said Rolland, 57. "I thought {two life sentences} meant he would be in jail for as long as he lived. Of course, I was naive then. I'm not so naive now."