I have no trouble understanding those who oppose capital punishment. But how in the name of justice can anyone accept capital punishment as a rational option and then vote, as a Maryland jury did last week, not to apply it to Jack Ronald Jones?

Jones, 26, was convicted last month of the kidnap, repeated rape and premeditated murder of Stephanie Ann Roper, a Frostburg State College honor student whose car had become disabled on a lonely country road last April. He and 17-year-old Jerry Lee Beatty (who will be tried separately) had stopped, ostensibly to help her. Instead of being driven to a friend's home, as she had been promised, she was driven to the abandoned house where she was killed.

A Towson, Md., jury believed the prosecutor's evidence that Jones had raped the young woman repeatedly, that he had beat her with a logging chain and shot her in the forehead when she attempted to escape, and that he had set her body afire because, according to his testimony, he was "scared and didn't know what to do."

Maryland's death penalty law, enacted five years ago, provides for capital punishment for murder under certain "aggravating" circumstances, including kidnap and rape -- unless there is a unanimous finding by the jury that there were "mitigating" circumstances sufficient to outweigh the aggravating ones.

There were mitigating circumstances in this ghastly kidnap, rape, torture, murder and mutilation? Incredibly, the jury said there were. Jones had cooperated with the police after his arrest. He had a family history that contributed to his conduct. He was unlikely to pose as a threat to society in the future, presumably because he had sought religious counseling, and he was remorseful. Further, the jury found, Jones's use of drugs may have contributed to this heinous crime and, finally, his execution would have meant lifelong anguish for his immediate family, including his wife and 6-year-old son.

In all, there were nine "mitigating" factors against only two "aggravating" factors -- rape and kidnap. So Jones was given a life sentence instead of the gas chamber. That may be admirable arithmetic, but it is incomprehensible justice.

Nor is the judge's decision any easier to comprehend. Circuit Judge Walter R. Haile ordered the sentences for kidnap (20 years) and rape (life) to run concurrently. With time off for good behavior, and credit for time served since his arrest, Jones will be eligible for parole in 12 years.

It is enough to give new meaning to the phrase "travesty of justice."

I am no big fan of capital punishment. It too often involves factors that have nothing to do with the nature of the offense: such factors as the wealth, social status and race of both murderer and victim, and whether the crime is a sufficiently "famous" one.

Still, it strikes me that it is possible for a criminal to commit acts so heinous as to place himself outside the category of human, to render him subject to extermination as one might exterminate a mad dog, without consideration of how the animal came to contract rabies in the first place.

Tell me that you believe no human being has the right to take the life of another, whether in a courtroom, a battlefield or an abortion clinic, and, while I might not agree with you, I can at least understand you.

What I can never understand is how you can endorse capital punishment, as this jury did, and not vote the execution of Jack Ronald Jones. If Jones can live, there's no point in having capital punishment on the books.