As a van carrying a group of college students returned to Washington after a visit to Virginia's Mecklenburg Correctional Center not long ago, a heavy sadness showed on the faces of those who had met Joseph M. Giarratano.

"It's sad because we know him now," said Wendie Beck, 20, a junior at the University of Maryland. "It's sad because he will be killed by our own system."

Laura Reynolds, a sophomore, gazed out at the Southside Virginia countryside as the prison faded from view.

"Our tax money at work," she said with a tearful sigh.

The students were feeling profound sorrow for Giarratano, who is scheduled to die Friday in Virginia's electric chair -- unless Gov. L. Douglas Wilder pardons him.

They had been deeply impressed by Giarratano, who explained how the writings of George Bernard Shaw and Albert Schweitzer had helped him transform from an imprisoned drug addict into a legal scholar and writer.

Giarratano was obviously a changed man, no longer the hallucinating drug abuser who had been sentenced to death in 1979 for the murders of a Norfork mother and daughter.

Yet, his remarkable transformation was only part of the argument against his execution. The best reason was that he might be the wrong man.

Giarratano had a new defense team, which had begun picking apart the prosecution's case, finding holes it said would lead to a reasonable doubt at a new trial.

The students, who visited him as part of a course on alternatives to violence, saw the evidence in Giarratano's favor. It includes the bloody bootprint found at the crime scene that did not match Giarratano's boots, the fact that no blood was found on Giarratano, and the belief by forensic experts that the victims were killed by a right-handed assailant. Giarratano is left-handed.

"It makes me nauseous to think that people can be so uncaring as to actually execute Joe," said Dana Garris, 20, a junior at the University of Maryland. "It shakes your faith in the system."

"It dehumanizes all of us," said Christine Porter, 18, a freshman. "What is the purpose? Revenge only keeps the wounds opened. It only turns another family into victims."

Giarratano credited Marie Dean, a good Samaritan who routinely takes inmates under her wing, with teaching him about nonviolence and helping him keep cool under the intense pressure of death row.

"It's not always easy to live nonviolently in this environment, but I manage -- by constantly recognizing the individual humanness of every person around me and by treating them with respect and a gentle spirit," Giarratano wrote in a recent article for Peace Times, a publication of the Center for Teaching Peace.

"Be it a fellow prisoner or a potential executioner standing before me, I always look into their eyes. What I see there, without fail, is my own reflection. That reflection is powerful. By recognizing the humanness of others we can change our way of life, and break the cycle of violence."

In explaining the legal grounds for his appeals for a new trial, Giarratano sought to teach the students respect for the law rather than complain to them about how he had been wronged.

"If I lose the appeal, an execution date will be set," Giarratano concluded solemnly. "If I'm acquitted, I'd like to go to law school."

"I can't imagine what it must be like facing an execution when so much evidence points to your innocence," Laura Reynolds said.

It was hard, Giarratano acknowledged. But he kept the faith.

"For now, I am very much alive," he wrote. "Until death touches me, I feel the pain, anger, frustration, despair and grief at the loss of those close to me; and I feel the fear of my own predetermined death. But here on the row, where life goes on, death is never distant. Here life and death are constantly one. Both are ever present; while there are times when death appears distant, it is only an illusion: at any time an announcer on TV or radio may remind you of your death, or that of a friend. You may read about your death in the daily newspaper or a letter from a court clerk."

The guards returned Giarratano to his cell on death row when the visit ended. He was subsequently taken to the otherwise deserted state penitentary in Richmond, where the electric chair is located. "We'll keep trying to help you," Christine Porter cried out.

There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he deserved a new trial.