THE FATE of Michael Owen Perry, who sits on death row in Louisiana, is not yet clear, but the U.S. Supreme Court this week took an action that may yet save him from execution. Mr. Perry is not an innocent. He has been tried and convicted on five counts of murder. The victims were all members of his family -- both parents, two cousins and a 2-year-old nephew -- and the circumstances of the killings and the fact that Mr. Perry had a history of mental illness might easily lead an observer to conclude that the crimes were a product of that illness. He refused to plead insanity, however, and at the time of his trial he was found competent to understand what was going on and cooperate in his defense. But after the sentence was pronounced, he fell apart. Everyone who has examined him agrees that he is now insane.

Though capital punishment is constitutional in this country under some circumstances, the courts have never allowed a further barbarity, the execution of the insane. Rather than abandon Mr. Perry's case at this point, however, Louisiana authorities have ordered that he be medicated with an antipsychotic drug called Haldol so that he can be made well enough to be electrocuted. A series of Louisiana courts approved this plan, but the U.S. Supreme Court, after hearing arguments on appeal, has now sent the case back to state judges to decide whether their rulings conflict with another recent case on the involuntary medication of prisoners. Mr. Perry's lawyers believe they will be successful in this new round, as well they should be.

There is not even a pretext offered here that the prisoner, in his present condition, is a danger to himself or others. No justification is offered that this wonder drug is being given simply to alleviate the symptoms of madness so that a sick man can be made well. And there is no testimony that the convict is malingering, feigning illness so that he can dodge the executioner. Louisiana is straightforward and honest. The state wants him to get better so that he will be fit to kill. This reasoning is a bizarre twist in the death penalty debate, and this case is a sorry footnote in the jurisprudence of capital punishment.