The Supreme Court term ending last month demonstrated that a clear majority is hostile to claims by death row prisoners seeking to overturn their sentences.

Of the 10 full opinions issued in death penalty cases, prisoners lost outright in all but two cases.

Furthermore, one of the victories for death penalty opponents was in name only. Although the court sent the specific case back to the state court for further review, the justices gave appellate judges new power to weigh for themselves the circumstances of a crime in determining whether to impose capital punishment if the jury had considered improper factors. The other victory for death penalty opponents, a ruling striking down North Carolina's death penalty statute, had been expected in light of a 1988 decision.

Although growing more conservative and less receptive to death row prisoners' claims of constitutional violations, the court until this term had overturned nearly half the death sentences it considered in the previous decade.

During the 1987-88 term, for example, defendants won seven

of 10 cases, five of them unanimously.

This year, said Richard Burr, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's capital punishment project, "the tables were turned completely" and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist finally "has gotten a majority."

Since 1976, when it ushered in a new era of capital punishment by upholding the constitutionality of a Georgia death penalty statute, the court has struggled to fine-tune its death penalty jurisprudence, clarifying for states the circumstances under which they will be permitted to carry out executions.

Over the last several years, the court has turned aside a number of broad-based attacks on the death penalty.

In 1987, it rejected arguments that a state's capital punishment system must be struck down because statistics indicate it is racially discriminatory. Last year, the court said the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not prohibit the execution of mentally retarded defendants but that juries must have the opportunity to consider the intellectual development of the accused. It also said it is not categorically unconstitutional to execute prisoners who were 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime.

This term's rulings were more technical in nature but are expected to have at least as broad an im- pact on the ability of death row prisoners to seek reversal of their sentences.

It is clear "for the first time this year, this is it, we're not going to put any good face on it, we're going to be losing. It's a disaster," said Columbia University law professor Vivian Berger, a death penalty opponent who argued and lost one of the cases this term.

Death penalty supporters agreed.

This term reflected "the continuing trend that there is a solid majority on death penalty issues in the court and that it's going to be increasingly difficult for death penalty opponents to succeed in the high court. . . . I think it was clear before this term and it was further solidified in this term," said John Scully of the Washington Legal Foundation.

The seeds of this term's death penalty record were sown last term in a little-noticed case called Teague v. Lane.

In that decision, which did not involve the death penalty, the court said that in reviewing state prisoners' efforts to have their convictions overturned in federal court, it generally would not apply decisions retroactively if they involved "new rules" of law.

In a series of death penalty decisions this year, the court made clear that it would interpret the Teague standard to give few of its decisions retroactive effect -- essentially foreclosing prisoners from obtaining federal court review of a broad array of claims of constitutional violations.

In one case, Butler v. McKellar, the court refused to throw out an illegally obtained confession because it said use of the confession was "susceptible to debate among reasonable minds" at the time that the state courts were considering the question.

In another, Saffle v. Parks, the court refused to consider whether an "anti-sympathy instruction," telling the jury not to make its decision on the basis of sentiment or passion, would violate the Constitution. Even if it did, the court said, that would be a "new rule" that could not be applied retroactively.

"What you see {in those cases} is some real conservative judicial activism," said Stephen Bright of the Southern Prisoners' Defense Committee.

But death penalty supporters said the restrictions on federal court review are sensible.

"To do otherwise would be to throw open cases that have already been decided, appeals that have already been heard, and give them new life such that . . . you wind up having to release maybe thousands of America's most hardened criminals back onto the streets," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernest Preate.

The justices were divided 5 to 4 in all but two of the death penalty decisions -- the one striking down North Carolina's law and the other rejecting an effort by a prisoner on Arkansas' death row to challenge the sentence of another death row inmate.

One change this year was that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who in previous years had been a swing vote on death penalty cases, joined regularly with the conservative majority.

"She has consistently voted and written out of a deep concern that the jury be given free rein to consider {mitigating circumstances} and has pretty consistently voted against any barriers in the way of that," Burr said.

This year, O'Connor voted to uphold Pennsylvania's death penalty statute, which requires that the death sentence be imposed if the jury unanimously finds that the aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating ones, as well as the California death penalty law, which provides that the jury "shall impose" a sentence of death if it finds that aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating ones.

"Over and over again their message was, 'We don't want these cases. We're going to strain to uphold every capital punishment,' " conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein said.

"I think the court's trying to get out of the business" of deciding capital cases, Burr said. "We've seen this coming for a long time. It was only a question of when."