LORAIN, OHIO -- Air Force Sgt. Ralph Harris Jr. returned home from Korea to celebrate his son's third birthday. He did not live to see that day.

He died at 27, stabbed on a summer night in 1986 by one of his oldest and closest friends. The friend, Eddie Huertas, was high on drugs and alcohol and enraged that Har- ris had started dating his girl- friend.

At Huertas's trial, Harris's parents testified about what a good son Ralph was; how their grandson, Ralph III, begged to be taken to the cemetery because he thought he would see his father there; and what they thought Huertas's punishment should be. After listening to their accounts, the jury sentenced him to death.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court was asked to use the Huertas case to overrule a decision the court made just four years ago: that juries considering capital punishment should not be allowed to hear such emotional testimony. Citing the high court's decision in the 1987 Maryland case, the Ohio Supreme Court overruled Huertas's death sentence.

The Huertas case calls on the court to wrestle once again with the proper considerations for imposing society's ultimate punishment.

Prosecutors argue that the character of the victim, and the suffering of those left behind, are essential ingredients in the calculus of whether a murderer should be put to death. Defense lawyers say permitting such testimony would create a caste system in which a murderer's fate is determined by the status of the victim, rather than the circumstances of the crime and the person who committed it.

The case also tests the willingness of the new conservative majority to overrule precedents with which they disagree, such as the 5 to 4 decision in Booth v. Maryland. The state of Ohio, backed by the Bush administration, various states, and victims' rights groups, is asking the court to take that step.

Just two years ago in a case from South Carolina, the court shied away from that dramatic action, even though a majority of the court clearly disagreed with the decision. Now, only three of the original five-justice majority in Booth remain. When the court heard oral argument yesterday in State of Ohio

v. Ediberto Huertas, it was clear

that the future of Booth was on the line.

Jonathan E. Rosenbaum, the Lorain County prosecutor who argued the case yesterday, said he is confident the justices are ready to overrule it. "It's history. It's done. It's outta here," he predicted bluntly.

Huertas's lawyer, Ohio public defender Joann Bour-Stokes, seemed implicitly to concede as much, devoting her argument to seeking to convince the justices that the case is too tangled in issues of state law for them to deal with.

In Booth, the court said the decision to sentence someone to death must be "based on reason rather than caprice or emotion." Allowing juries to consider "these emotionally charged opinions . . . clearly is inconsistent with the reasoned decision-making we require in capital cases," it said.

The Ohio Supreme Court said the testimony by Harris's parents clearly ran afoul of this rule.

"Oh God, how proud I was, a child that never give me no problem, no nothing, no drinking, no smoking, nothing but to go to church and come back . . . ," Elizabeth Harris, a practical nurse who speaks in the soft tones of her native North Carolina, told the jury.

Ralph Harris Sr. told the jury he believed they should sentence his son's killer to death. "He took a life. Yes, I do," said Harris, who had just retired after 38 years in the U.S. Steel Corp. plant here.

For the state of Ohio, and those supporting its position, Booth keeps from juries the most relevant of information: the harm caused by the crime. In this case, the state argues, Huertas knew the victim, knew his family, knew the tragic consequences of his act -- and chose to murder anyway.

Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr pointed out in his brief that it is a staple of criminal law to hold defendants liable for the harm caused, even unintentionally, by their actions. For example, he said, the difference between murder and attempted-murder charges may be "nothing more than poor aim on the part of the defendant."

And, he noted, the law itself treats some crimes differently depending on who is the victim, providing for greater punishment for those who murder police officers or high government officials, such as presidents or Supreme Court justices.

Those arguing for allowing juries to hear "victim impact" evidence note that the court has said those facing the death penalty must be allowed to present any evidence they wish about their character and background in a plea for leniency.

In this case, for example, Huertas's lawyer told the jury that he was raised by his grandfather because his father was a heroin addict and his mother worked as a prostitute to support her drug habit; that he was a good father to his five children despite his drug and alcohol abuse and that he was truly remorseful for murdering his friend.

"The criminal is entitled to give to the jury all information about his background -- whether he had a poor childhood or was mistreated when he was a little boy or his daddy didn't take him to the baseball game or his puppy dog got run over -- to explain why he turned into a murderer or a rapist," said Paul Kamenar of the Washington Legal Foundation. "It's only fair that the jury should have some information about the victim . . . . The rules of the game are now stacked against the victim."

But such testimony should be excluded, according to Huertas's lawyers and those who agree with them, because the jury's proper focus is on the murderer -- his record, his character and the circumstances of the crime itself.

They argue that allowing such evidence would inevitably transform sentencing hearings into mini-trials on the victim's character and create a system in which the murder of some victims -- a homeless man, for example -- is treated as less heinous than others. That would reinforce, they said, the elements of racial and class discrimination that they believe are already endemic to the capital punishment system in America.

"I don't think that the punishment in a capital case should depend on whether you {the victim} had a family or your position in the community, whether you're a good person or a bad person," Bour-Stokes said in an interview.

She said that a love-triangle killing is not the type of murder that normally results in a death sentence, and that the testimony of the victim's parents tipped the jury in the direction of death.

As the Ohio Supreme Court described it, "Mrs. Harris's grief-stricken, emotional testimony is compelling even in a cold transcript; it is almost impossible to believe that a jury could hear it and remain unaffected."

Few are likely to be unaffected today listening to her describe the pain murder has inflicted on her family.

When she feels hatred toward Eddie Huertas, a boy who spent days at her house and fondly referred to her as "Mom," Elizabeth Harris said, she prays, asking God to help her learn to love her enemy.

But one of her daughters has responded by turning away from the church, she said, and her husband -- still so upset he will not speak to a reporter about the murder -- "has really gotten into a shell of himself." The jury, she said, is entitled to know that.

"I really believe that if they just knew how my family was beforehand, and the way they are now, they go to the graveyard and they do all this crying and weeping, and my grandson kisses the gravestone and says, 'Daddy, I love you,'" she said. "It has really just torn us apart."