The American Bar Association today refused to recommend abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.

By a vote of 168 to 69, the ABA's House of Delegates defeated a resolution to have the policy-making body urge state legislators to repeal all laws providing death for capital crimes.

The vote came after 65 minutes of sometimes florid debate on the resolution, which was sponsored by the ABA's Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities.

Passage of the resolution, said former ABA presidential candidate Lery Jeffers of Houston, would lead the public to suspect that the 218,000-member organization has a "peculiar preoccupation" with "the rapist-murderer, the robber-murderer and the murderer for money."

Another death-penalty advocate was Calvin A. Behle, a former member of the ABA Board of Governors from Ogden, Utah, where a firing squad executed murderer Gary Gilmore last month.

The delegates should not put their arms "around a human rat, or whatever you might like to call him, and forget about the victims," Behel said.

He told the delegates that Gilmore's execution was not a "happy" occassion. But, he said; "We do feel a little safer with one less citizen around who said, if you leave me alone, I'll kill again."

One opponent of the death penalty, Eugene C. Thomas of Boise, prosecuted the last man to be executed in Idaho. If every delegate had had an experience like his, he said, "the great majority would rise in favor of this resolution."

He said the ABA should "tell the truth" - that the criminal justice system has "too many imperfections" to warrant imposing the irrevocable penalty.

"We're just not good enough to go around killing people," Thomas said."Indeed, we're too good to go around killing people."

A few speakers said that the ABA should not be advising stale legislatures one way or another. Others said the public deserves to know the organization's views. In the latter group was S. Shepherd Tate of Memphis, who was nominated today to become president of the ABA in 1978. Nomination by the state delegates usually assures election.