The day before jurors in Ariel Sharon's libel suit issued their verdict, they sent their sixth handwritten note to the judge, requesting more excerpts of testimony that pinpointed weaknesses in Time magazine's defense.

A reporter jokingly asked Time attorney Stuart Gold if one of the requests was a suicide note. "No, but I'm in the middle of writing mine," Gold replied.

The six New Yorkers, presented with a complex case involving massacre, state secrets, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the intricacies of American libel law, diligently reexamined testimony and evidence before deciding on Thursday that Time, while negligent and careless, had not stepped beyond the outer limits of press behavior protected by the First Amendment.

"We started out with a lot of question marks . . . . We wanted to think and talk about the issues," said jury foreman Richard Zug, a computer programmer.

Zug told an interviewer that it was his first experience on a jury and he was "very impressed the way the system worked."

Time maintained that the jury had "misread" the paragraph at issue in the case in finding it was defamatory, although U.S. District Court Judge Abraham D. Sofaer had instructed the jury to evaluate the item for how it would be understood by the average reader. Although neither the magazine nor Time's lawyers described what the paragraph was intended to convey, each Time employe gave varying testimony on what they took it to mean.

Most of the reviews of the jurors' performance, agreed, however, with Zug.

The Washington Post praised them in an editorial, The New York Times called them "meticulous" and Sharon's lead attorney, Milton S. Gould, said they had seemed to be "highly cerebral types."

The jurors seemed to take their responsibilities seriously. The week before deliberations began, Spencer James, a retired Consolidated Edison watch supervisor, fell ill and had to be treated by the courthouse nurse. She wanted to send him home. But James would not leave until he was assured that he could return to the jury in the morning. Sofaer recessed the trial early that day to satisfy James' plea, and the juror came back the next day.

In an innovative procedure, Sofaer had the jury make step-by-step decisions on the three basic elements of libel in a case involving a public figure: defamation, falsity and "actual malice."

Had Sharon prevailed on all three the trial would have gone into a second phase with new witnesses being brought in to determine whether Sharon had, in fact, been harmed by the way Time described his role in the 1982 Beirut massacres.

Zug said the "actual malice" question was the hardest. Unlike its conventional meaning, the term in libel law is roughly defined as whether a jury believes that a reporter or editor had known an article was false when it was printed or had entertained serious doubts about its accuracy.

"We had to examine the state of mind of the Time employes at the time the article came out," Zug told the Associated Press. "We couldn't convince ourselves that beyond a doubt that they have a high degree of awareness regarding the falsity of the article."

The jurors said they constructed elaborate files with the transcripts and evidence they called to the jury room. They recalled emotional reactions by Time employes during testimony in the more than two-month-long trial and asked for transcripts so that they could see the wording of their responses.

Patricia DeLotch, a marketing specialist with American Telephone & Telegraph Co., said she and another juror at first felt that Time had acted with malice.

"There was a lot of hatred between Sharon and [Time correspondent David] Halevy," she said. "At one point I honestly did think he was out to get Sharon ," she said. But she was her mind was changed by the argument that Halevy would not have written that information damaging to Sharon appeared in a secret, but verifiable, appendix unless he believed it was there, she said.

"The bottom line was that he believed what he had written was true, which meant that he did not act with actual malice," said Lydia Burdick, who is unemployed, has a master's degree and wrote on a jury questionnaire that her boyfriend is an Israeli.

Zug said it was his idea to issue a statement with the verdict saying the jury felt that Halevy and others connected with the report had acted negligently and carelessly. "I wanted to make a statement to the effect that it just wasn't an accident that the story appeared in print," he said.

Before dismissing the jurors Thursday, Sofaer said, "I have repeatedly been impressed, indeed awed, by the wisdom, common sense and labor that common people come in, regular citizens come in and demonstrate here for the world to see."