'Live, From San Quentin.'

At the prison by the bay, just across the span of the Golden Gate, this is the way the state administers its final judgment. Early morning in the Death House, a convicted inmate is escorted into a green octagonal chamber and strapped into a chair. After the door is slammed shut, cyanide pellets are dropped into a bucket full of sulfuric acid; the fumes rise - and the condemned inmate chokes to death, usually within 10 minutes. This proceeding at San Quentin is performed in the name of the People of California, usually against a vicious murderer. It is witnessed by several state officials, along with a few reporters, who, after the smoke clears, are permitted to leave and describe the scene as best they can.

Now KQED-TV in San Francisco, wants to change that. As California's first execution in 24 years approaches, the public television station has sued for the right to broadcast from the gas chamber. The theory is that since the print press is allowed to watch an execution with the tools of its trade (pen and pad), so too should the broadcast media. "Television is the only neutral witness," says KQED's news director, Michael Schwarz. "It provides more accurate information than accounts filtered through a reporter." U.S. district court Judge Robert Schnacke will hear the case all this week (without any cameras present, since they're still banned from federal courtrooms). While no executions are yet scheduled in the state, Robert Alton Harris, convicted for the 1978 murders of two San Diego teenagers, has exhausted most of his appeals and could face a date by year's end.

KQED's novel suit revives a debate dating to the late 1700s: how public should the state's ultimate criminal sanction be? Well into the l9th century, in both England and the United States, hangings were performed in public and often arranged "so hundreds, even thousands, could watch the ritual that began with the arrival of the condemned person in the custody of the sheriff and ended with the corpse being carted off to ignominious burial," according to Hugo Adam Bedau's "The Death Penalty in America." Opposition to hangings in the town square came from both abolitionists, who thought them brutalizing, and supporters of capital punishment, who feared sympathy for the condemned. The last public execution in this country took place on May 21, 1937. As Roscoe Jackson went to his death in Galena, Mo., 500 people gathered round the gallows; many took away a souvenir piece of the rope used in the hanging. After that, all American executions were moved inside prison grounds. A few have been surreptitiously photographed, the most famous being the 1928 electrocution of Ruth Snyder, which appeared the next morning on the front page of the New York Daily News.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the press has no special right of access to places - like prisons - in which the public isn't allowed. KQED insists that once California chose to let in any media, it was constitutionally required to let in all. Last week the state attempted to derail the case by announcing that all reporters - print and broadcast - would be barred from future executions. "San Quentin is not required to permit the press to watch executions, but if they are allowed, the federal court will have final say about. press conduct," declared warden Daniel Vasquez. He added that he believed "that it would be inappropriate. to invite the press if this automatically includes forfeiting control."

The state opposes television at San Quentin because of security. By revealing identities, cameras would endanger witnesses and prison staff participating in an execution. Indeed, according to the state, the 300 inmates on death row - who have television in their cells - will be incited to revolt if they actually see guards putting one of their own to death. In the end, says Deputy Attorney General Karl Mayer, the state has the right and responsibility to control its own prison; guests inside, even the media, should not get to set the rules.

In response, KQED says it will not broadcast live and will electronically mask the identities of prison staff. The station suggests in its brief that the state's policies on execution coverage are based on public relations. Last year, for example, when an execution date for Harris drew near, the final decision on which 16 press representatives would be admitted were made by the governor's press secretary. There is also the question of taste, but KQED says squeamishness is irrelevant. "The public has seen Ceaucescu's execution in Romania, beheadings in Saudi Arabia and executions in Iraq, Iran and Vietnam," says William Bennett Turner, KQED's lawyer. "The state cannot seriously contend that only the executions performed by our government are inappropriate for television."

Much as the public executions of another era created strange political divisions, KQED's suit has split the abolitionist movement. Only one group, Death Penalty Focus, has announced support for television coverage. "We believe that if people see what executions are like," says the group's Pat Clark, "they will oppose them." Others express concern for the inmate's privacy or vaguer notions of propriety. Proponents of capital punishment have varying views, too. Marcella Leach of Justice for Homicide Victims worries about who's getting all the attention. She supports showing an accurate re-enactment of the capital crime right before airing the execution itself. "Let's give equal time," she says.

What of the person about whom all this theorizing has real consequences? Harris has flip-flopped on whether he wants his execution, should there be one, televised. His lawyer, Charles Sevilla, has no such ambivalence. "I think they would initially be viewed as an MTV special," he said last year. Television "is not going to capture the almond-ammonia smell as the cyanide gas begins to well up in the room. It's not going to capture the pain of the individual."