The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by a Maryland death row inmate who claims his lawyers did not adequately defend him at his sentencing hearing, a case that legal experts say may clarify standards for representation in capital cases.

The appeal by Kevin Wiggins, convicted of drowning a 77-year-old widow in her bathtub in 1988, comes amid an intense debate, in Maryland and nationally, about how fairly the death sentence is applied.

The quality of legal representation has been a particular concern of members of the court in recent years, with two justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, voicing their worries in public speeches.

In Maryland, evidence of possible racial and geographic discrepancies prompted Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in May to order a moratorium on executions -- a ban that Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has vowed to lift immediately upon succeeding Glendening in January.

"Bob believes that each and every case should be reviewed by the governor in its entirety, everything from the facts to the interpretation of the law," Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's spokesman, said yesterday. "The Supreme Court's interest in this case is consistent with Bob's commitment to make Maryland's death penalty fair and open."

Wiggins's case, which rested on circumstantial evidence, has long been controversial. Maryland's highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court each twice declined to hear previous appeals.

Then, last year, J. Frederick Motz, chief judge of the U.S. District Court, voided Wiggins's murder conviction and sentence. "No rational finder of fact could have found Wiggins guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt," Motz said in his opinion. Wiggins has always maintained his innocence.

However, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned that decision.

The Supreme Court announced its decision yesterday to reconsider the 4th Circuit's ruling and determine whether Wiggins's representation during his sentencing hearing was adequate.

Wiggins's original attorneys, Carl Schlaich and Michelle Nethercott, had almost no experience with capital cases. In an effort to persuade jurors to spare Wiggins's life, they had argued that he was innocent, rather than arguing for mercy on the basis of the severe abuse he suffered as a child.

Wiggins, who is borderline retarded and had no prior criminal history, was the child of an alcoholic mother who frequently left her children in the house without food for days, beat them with belts and furniture, and once punished Wiggins by placing his hands on a hot stove burner. At age 6, he was sent to live in a succession of foster homes, where he was beaten and raped repeatedly.

"There was an overwhelmingly powerful case to be made in terms of mitigation," Donald B. Verrilli Jr., Wiggins's current attorney, said yesterday. "The case was all there to be presented to a jury, and his trial counsel never did."

Wiggins's execution is blocked by the moratorium that Glendening imposed in the spring. The governor cited statistics showing that nine of Maryland's 13 death row inmates at the time were prosecuted by one county -- Baltimore County -- and nine of them were black.

"Very serious questions have been raised about the system, about its impartiality," Glendening said. He said the system disproportionately punishes black killers of white victims.

While Wiggins's attorneys are not arguing those points, his case fits the profile: Wiggins, who was prosecuted by Baltimore County, is black, and the woman he was convicted of murdering was white.

University of Maryland researchers are studying the death penalty and are expected to release their findings in late December. Although Ehrlich has pledged to review the findings, he also has said that there is no reason to keep the moratorium in place until then.

"There has never been any evidence to suggest that the death penalty process is flawed in any way," Schurick said.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that cases such as Wiggins's prove otherwise. Wiggins was arrested and charged with robbing and killing Florence Lacs after he and his then-girlfriend were found with Lacs's car and credit cards a few days after she was slain.

Although Lacs's Woodlawn apartment had been ransacked, investigators found no fingerprints, hair or fibers traceable to Wiggins. Investigators also did not find paint stains in the apartment, despite the fact that Wiggins had been painting in the building the day Lacs was believed to have been killed. They did, however, find fingerprints left by another, still unidentified person.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of Wiggins's conviction. Instead, it will focus on his representation at sentencing.

Death penalty opponents are hopeful that the court will rule in favor of Wiggins. However, in two cases last term, the court declined to remove two men from death row who said their lawyers were incompetent.

"Underneath the facts of the Wiggins case is the very large question of whether the federal courts still have the power to review the adequacy of defense counsel performance in capital cases in any meaningful way at all," said David Bruck, a capital defense lawyer in Charleston, S.C.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.