A LITTLE GIRL was burned to death in a fiery automobile crash on a Sunday morning in October 1981, and this week a Washington jury brought her killer to justice. In a case that should serve as a warning to all potentially reckless and homicidal drivers, William A. Powell was found guilty of murder in the second degree after a 10-day trial in Superior Court. The defendant, who was fleeing from police at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour on a quiet street, crashed his car into one in which Clarence Nicholson and his 11-year-old daughter, Melanie, were riding to church. Melanie died at the scene; her father was severely injured.

Usually, in a case of this kind, the driver would be charged with negligent homicide or, at most, manslaughter. But District prosecutors believed this case to be so egregious that a charge of murder was warranted. In order to prove its case, the government had to show that the defendant acted with such reckless disregard for the safety of others that his conduct showed malicious intent. It is hard to think otherwise of someone who races at high speed through city streets for four miles and hits a standing automobile with a force equivalent to dropping it from the top of the Washington Monument.

Prosecutor Pamela Stuart emphasized to the jury that this murder was committed with a weapon and the weapon was a car. In this country, the harm done by drunk or reckless drivers with this weapon far exceeds the damage inflicted by guns and knives, and the trend toward charging the worst offenders with murder is growing. A recent trial in Virginia was the first of this kind in that jurisdiction, but convictions in other states -- California and Illinois in particular -- are becoming more common. This tough approah reflects a strong community feeling that many highway deaths are not simply accidents but serious crimes for which severe sanctions are appropriate.