ONCE AGAIN, Maryland's General Assembly members are performing their annual death ritual - debating, amending and approving a capital punishment bill. Following in the footsteps of Marvin Mandel, the state's acting governor, Blair Lee III is leading the forces that believe the taking of lives deters crime. Unless these supporters of primitive and repugnant punishment also continue their tradition of voting for unconstitutional measure, the death penalty may actually be enacted this time.

The 1978 version would permit the death penalty for 10 types of first-degree murder, including murder in connection with an armed robbery or a kidnaping, murder for hire, murder by a prison inmate and murder of a law-enforcement official. Perhaps as a further deterrent, supporters might wish to issue a handbook of capital crimes for would-be killers. After all, as Del. Arthur G. Murphy Sr. (D-Baltimore), leader of the Black Caucus, noted, this bill doesn't cover "premeditated murder of an ordinary citizen who is not a policeman or a prison guard." But that's the way this kind of legalized revenge is dished out; Lives of some potential candidates for execution are deemed more valuable than others. And that serves to explain the strong opposition from the Black Caucus and others who argue that the death penalty discriminates against black and poor defendants.

As we have said before, all this spinning of distinctions merely underscores the weakness of the death-penalty argument. The effect is to reduce the state to the level of the murderer, though supporters would have you believe that killing of criminals somehow solves something or improves the world or meets some unarticulated demands of justice. We still hope for a time when reverence for adult human life will count for more than the desire for a revival of executions. Those General Assembly members who are serious about dealing with crime know that this is not an effective approach. Still, supporters keep on using it, passing off their votes for captial punishment as bold, effective attacks on crime. Perhaps they will prevail this time. We hope not. We hope, instead, that after enough extensive surgery in the Assembly, the death-penalty bill will die of complications.