SIXTEEN HOURS BEFORE they were scheduled to die in Florida's electric chair in July 1983, William Riley Jent and Earnest Lee Miller, two half-brothers who had been convicted of murder, won a temporary reprieve. Their appeal for a new trial has since been denied, and any day now another execution date might be set.

I spent several months investigating their case, which some civil libertarians point to as the most dubious death row conviction in Florida, America's new capital of capital punishment. After interviewing 56 people and examining thousands of pages of police and court documents, I can't prove Jent and Miller's innocence, but I think there is reasonable doubt about their guilt. At every step of my inquiry I found unresolved contradictions.

Key witnesses changed their stories. Some claimed they were pressured to recant. Law enforcement officials failed to pursue several leads. They also failed to discover that the identity of the victim is almost certainly Linda Gale Bradshaw -- a likelihood I determined through fingerprint comparisons after interviews with Bradshaw's family.

Above all else, I've concluded, the case illustrates the flaws in our system of carrying out the death penalty. When the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, it said that states had the right to execute people when various circumstances had been balanced and conditions of fairness and care had been met. I question whether this case is what the court had in mind.

If Jent and Miller were to be executed tomorrow, they would become the 14th and 15th inmates killed by Florida in the last nine years. Florida leads the nation with 231 prisoners sentenced to die, a ranking that will not soon be relinquished during the tenure of Gov. Bob Graham, who has overseen more executions and signed more death warrants than any of his fellow governors. Graham, considered a moderate-to-progressive southern Democrat, has no second thoughts about the death penalty.

"It is highly unlikely that I could ever be persuaded that capital punishment is not a deterrent," Graham has said. "I have had no moral or ethical reservations about carrying it out."

Nationally at last count there were 1,540 death row inmates, including 26 in Virginia and 22 in Maryland. Since the court decision affirming its use under certain conditions, there have been 47 executions, including two this June 25 and one on July 9.

Executions have become so common that the execution of a Texas murderer in June was noted in a four-line paragraph in this paper and the report of a Virginia execution was on the inside pages.

The story begins on July 14, 1979, when the partially nude body of a white female was found in a game preserve near a small, transient community of migrant workers and low-income trailer home residents in Pasco County, about 60 miles from Tampa. The woman was lying face down and had been burned over 80 per cent of her body. Brown sandals were near her feet and a stub of a burned cigarette was next to the sandals. An empty milk can smelling of gasoline was found not far from the body.

The medical examiner ruled that the woman, who was described in her 20s, about 5 feet 6 inches and weighing between 120 and 130 pounds, had been hit twice on the head with a heavy object and then burned severely. The cause of death, she said, was the burns.

The Pasco County sheriff's department circulated a composite drawing of the victim and canvassed the area. Two weeks after the body was discovered, Jent, then 28, and Miller, then 23, were questioned by sheriff detectives and subsequently arrested.

Both men had no prior criminal convictions. Miller, a blond unemployed high school dropout who had lived in the Florida Panhandle since his early teens, was kicked out of the Marines after he went AWOL for six months. Jent, who has the words "Wild Bill" tattooed on his upper left arm, was a member of a motorcycle gang and had spent a year in jail for burglary when he was 20.

The two men and three women who were later to testify against them come from a world that is sometimes at odds with the police. It a is a world in which drifters and poor whites abound, where pleasure can include frequent parties with drugs and alcohol, where a man's home is protected by mean dogs, and were bodies are covered with tattoos underneath tanktops. Even the trial judge in the case told me he "never would have invited them to my home."

The men were questioned about an outdoor party they had had with several friends near the area where the victim's body was found. The two admitted to attending the party in a game preserve near Miller's home but denied that there had been anyone resembling the victim at the gathering, or that they had killed anyone.

Three women told authorities differently. They initially denied that a murder had taken place but later said that it had. They said they met the woman for the first time on the night she was killed at the party in the woods. They identified the victim as "Tammy," though in an earlier statement one of them called her Elizabeth. They said they did not know how she arrived at the gathering. All three women said they were high on alcohol or drugs that night.

One, Glina Frye, then 21, said the victim had been killed because she and Jent's girlfriend got into an argument over Jent.

The three women also said that there had been three other persons present, in addition to the two half-brothers, during the murder. Two of those were also charged as accessories to the murder, of which they denied any knowledge. Later, one was found innocent and the second was sentenced to five years in jail after she pleade guilty. None of them testified at the trials of Jent and Miller.

The court-appointed defense attorneys said they had no defense other than that the two men "didn't do it." Their strategy was to attack the credibility of the prosecution witnesses.

Miller's trial was held on Nov. 12, 1979. Frye, who was one of two women to testify against Miller, said she had watched him, along with his brother, beat the woman, transport her in his car from the woods to his home and back to the woods, where he and Jent set her afire. A police officer also testified that he had seen Miller in the wooded area on the night of the murder. However, another officer said he could find no signs of blood or hair from the victim in Miller's car.

Four days later, a jury convicted Miller and recommended that the judge sentence him to life imprisonment.

Three weeks later, Glina Frye and another witness, Patricia Tirikaine, then 19, were reinterviewed by defense attorneys. Frye then recalled that the victim had been raped by the two half-brothers and two other men before she was killed. She also said that the woman tried to get up and Jent knocked her to the ground before setting her on fire. Tirikaine said she had a "hazy" memory of the rape.

Around the same time, Samantha Carver who the two said had also witnessed the murder, pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact in connection with the murder.

On Dec. 18, 1979, Jent's trial began. Frye, Tirikaine and a third woman, Carlena Jo Hubbard, testified against Jent. In addition, a hair analyst testified that a hair found on a tree stump in the vicinity of the murder three days after the body was discovered "is highly likely" from Jent.

The following day, Frye testified at the trial of George Mortola, who also had been charged with accessory after the fact in connection with the murder. Frye's testimony at Mortola's trial made no mention of the rape nor the victim waking up before she was burned. Mortola was found not guilty.

On Dec. 21, a jury found Jent guilty and recommended he be put to death.

The trial judge set a sentencing date for the two men in January. Before the sentencing hearing, one of the defense attorneys was contacted by Elmer Carroll, who was being housed in the same jail as the two half- brothers.

Carroll said in a sworn affidavit that the murder victim was a Tennessee woman named Gale Bradshaw and he had seen Bradshaw's boyfriend, whom he knew as Bobby Bradshaw, kill her. Carroll said that shortly before the murder Bradshaw and her boyfriend had moved into a trailer next to the one where he lived with his girlfriend. Carroll also told the attorneys that Bradshaw had relatives who lived in Cleveland, Tenn., about 500 miles from Pasco County.

The attorneys contacted Bradshaw's relatives, who told them that they had visited the Pasco County sheriff's department in November 1979, between the trials of the two half-brothers, because they suspected the unknown victim might be Gale. They said she had moved to Dade City with one Bobby Dodd a couple of weeks before she disappeared.

They told authorities that when they hadn't heard from Gale for some time, they asked Dodd about her whereabouts and he gave them different stories which they found untrue. Bradshaw's father and brother went to the sheriff's office after a relative in Florida notified them of the unidentified murder victim. On their visit to Florida, Bradshaw's father and brother said they had asked detectives if they could view the corpse, but were refused. The relatives said they were shown a picture of a corpse which did not resemble Gale.

On Jan. 29, 1980, a hearing was held to determine whether Jent and Miller should be granted a new trial based on the new evidence about the Bradshaw killing. However, at that hearing, Carroll recanted and said he had never seen the murder. Carroll's girlfriend, who had earlier said in a sworn affidavit that Carroll had told her about the murder, also changed her story. The prosecution said that the pair had given their initial stories because they expected to be paid with money and drugs from Jent and Miller.

Relatives of Gale Bradshaw testified that jewelry and sandals found near the victim's body resembled those of Gale. They were also shown a picture of the victim, which the father and brother said was different from the picture they had been shown on their visit to the sheriff's office in November. But they were not certain that the corpse was Bradshaw.

The trial judge found lack of evidence for a new trial and imposed the death sentence on Jent and Miller. They filed appeals before the state court, the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. All were denied. Their bid for clemency from Gov. Graham was also denied and they were given an execution date of July 19, 1983.

The victim was never identified until last spring when I discovered a set of fingerprints taken from a photo album belonging to Bradshaw. Tennessee officials had been told in 1980 that no fingerprints of the Florida victim were available, but this was wrong. A comparison last March by the Tennessee crime lab showed that the fingerprints sets matched.

Bradshaw's boyfriend, Bobby Dodd (alias Bobby Bradshaw), has never been questioned by law enforcement officials about the murder. Dodd, who is currently on parole in Dalton, Ga., in connection with a child molestation conviction, was a prime suspect in a similar unsolved murder of a Georgia woman four months after the murder in Florida, according to Georgia authorities. The Georgia victim had been dating Dodd and her burned body was found in a wooded area near the home of Dodd's father in Dalton, according to the mother of the Georgia victim. Dodd has never been charged in the Georgia case which is still open.

Two attorneys who oppose the death penalty -- Eleanor Jackson Piel and Howardene Garrett -- have volunteered to handle the appeals process, with assistance from the Washington-area firm of Steptoe and Johnson.

The two attorneys have new testimony from a Florida state medical examiner that Bradshaw was dead before she was set on fire, which contradicts the autopsy report and the story told by Glina Frye. They stated that Carver, who served two years in jail after pleading guilty to accessory after murder, said she agreed to the plea bargain on the advice of her attorney, who also advised her not to testify on behalf of Miller and Jent. They said the two deserve a new trial because there is another suspect -- Dodd.

A year ago, Carroll and his girlfriend told a judge that they had recanted the story in 1980 because law enforcement authorities had threatened to charge them with perjury or murder or both. In October, the judge said Carroll and his girlfriend could not be believed.

Last winter I contacted Stephen Cole, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent, to whom the Bradshaws had given a Bible and photo album which Gale had left with them in Tennessee. Cole said the TBI crime lab had examined the items for prints and had recovered a latent fingerprint from a photo album that belonged to Bradshaw. When I asked him if that print had been compared with the murder victim in Florida, he said as far as he knew there were no fingerprints of the Florida murder victim.

When told that there were, Cole arranged to have the TBI crime lab compare the prints. Robert E. McFadden, the TBI latent print examiner said: "All of us feel comfortable that it is her. The likelihood of an unknown person in Florida being killed and handling the photo album that belongs to Gale Bradshaw is pretty slim."

The prosecution contends that the comparison only shows that the murder victim, "Tammy," touched the photo album or someone transferred the victim's print to the album. The prosecution has also said that it makes no difference whether the victim was named "Tammy," or Gale Bradshaw, the two men are still guilty. But the defense says it does make a difference because if the woman is Gale Bradshaw, then there is another suspect -- Bradshaw's boyfriend.

Bobby Dodd would not respond to several telephone calls and letters from this reporter.

Dodd, who works in a textile plant outside of Dalton, Ga., about 30 miles from Cleveland, Tenn., had been friends with Bradshaw for about four years before she disappeared, said Ruby Vaughan, Bradshaw's sister. Dodd had threatened to kill Bradshaw on previous occasions, according to Vaughan and Carroll.

"I hate to see those two boys killed for something they didn't do," Vaughan said.

Elmer Carroll, his girlfriend and Bradshaw's brother have said that Bradshaw knew Glina Frye, one of the witnesses who testified that she had never seen the murder victim before she was killed. Carroll said he also had seen Bradshaw's boyfriend, Bobby Dodd, and Frye together.

However, Frye, who was reached in Reidsville, N.C., told this reporter that she "knew" of Bradshaw, but had never seen her. She also said she could not recall if she knew Bobby Dodd, though his name "sounds familiar."

"The only way to get this thing decided is to let a jury decide who's unbelieveable," said Leonard Holton, who was Jent's trial attorney. "An unbelievable story was heard by the jury. Let a jury hear the other side."

Charles W. Cope, a former assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the two death row inmates, said: "It's hogwash . . . . The state of Florida proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a heinous crime."

Behind the high barbed-wire fences surrounding the manicured lawns that lead to the Florida State Prison in Starke, about 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville, Jent and Miller pondered their fate in separate interviews for two hours. Both emphatically denied their guilt.

"It is a nightmare," Millersaid, his tall frame hunched forward over a desk, his hands clasped in front of him. "How would you feel if somebody snatched you up and said you done this. And all of a sudden you're on death row and you're facing death and you know that they are going to kill you unless somebody does something about it . . . . Me and my brother came within 16 hours of it . . . . But if we go over there again, we're gone."

Then, staring me straight in the eyes, he said: "We are innocent, but we can't get nobody to believe us." By Athelia Knight; Athelia Knight is a Washington Post reporter.