He hears the clank of electronic gates that seal off the stifling white corridors of death row. He listens to the voices of inmates gossiping through the air vents, and he hears the furious whispers of the mentally ill who sit alone in 6-foot by 10-foot cages, spaced out on Thorazine and swatting invisible demons. The drugged convicts at Mecklenburg (Va.) Correctional Center remind Joe of himself 11 years ago when, at 23, he was sent to Virginia's death row for a double murder he claims not to remember committing.

"I was crazy," Giarratano says of his early years on the row. "I was bogged down with drugs, hallucinating, hearing voices. At one point a Catholic priest wanted to hold an exorcism for me." It was never performed, but the changes in Joe Giarratano in the ensuing years suggest some equally miraculous intervention.

On death row he purged himself of the alcohol and hard drugs he had taken since he was 10 years old. When the fog cleared, another person seemed to emerge. Although Giarratano had never before finished a book, the shelf in his cell began to accumulate well-thumbed works of Aristotle, Gandhi and Goethe. He taught himself law and became a leading spokesman for prisoners' rights. Last year, a lawsuit he had conceived and initiated on behalf of death row inmates was argued before the Supreme Court—a remarkable achievement for a jailhouse lawyer. (After being sent back to a lower court, the suit was recently refiled with the high court.)

Now it is Joe Giarratano's turn. After a decade of appeals, his last petition is being filed with the Supreme Court this week. If it is refused, the state may finally execute him. That, say his supporters, would be a travesty—not only because he is a changed man, but because he may actually be innocent.

Giarratano's odyssey began on a cold February night in 1979 in Norfolk, Va., when Barbara Kline, 44, and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, were murdered in their run-down apartment house. The following morning the Klines' landlord found Barbara's body on the bathroom floor with stab wounds in her neck and abdomen. Michelle was sprawled on her bed, half-naked and strangled.

Neighbors remembered the Klines' building as a "party house," with a steady stream of visitors, some of whom spent the night. Giarratano, who had left an abusive family environment in Florida to work on a scallop boat, lived in the Klines' apartment on and off for a month before the murders. He remembers having sex with mother and daughter on separate occasions, but he says most of his energy went into drinking and narcotics. Although he claims to have no recollection of his whereabouts on the night of the murders, Giarratano says he remembers regaining consciousness on the Klines' couch sometime later and finding their bodies. Since he was the only person present, he assumed he was the killer.

A day after the bodies were discovered, Giarratano, who somehow found himself in Florida, approached a sheriff at a Jacksonville bus depot and confessed to the killings. He twice tried to commit suicide in jail and would not allow his court-appointed lawyer to plea-bargain. Instead he pleaded insanity but asked to be sentenced to death. After a brief nonjury trial, a judge found him guilty and obliged his request for capital punishment.

Giarratano now says that, as a suicidal drug addict, he was incompetent to help his lawyer prepare a defense. His petition before the Supreme Court argues that a competent defendant would have been able to assist his lawyer in mounting a defense that would have cleared him. Giarratano hopes the justices will send the case back to a lower court for a hearing.

There, Giarratano hopes for the introduction of new evidence, dug up in the intervening years with the help of Marie Deans, a paralegal and counselor who works with condemned prisoners in Virginia. That evidence includes a forensic report indicating that Barbara Kline was stabbed by a right-handed assailant; Joe is left-handed. Michelle was strangled by a chain necklace; Joe, in his last confession—there were five in all—said he used his hands. Giarratano's attorneys will also argue that Norfolk police failed to pursue leads, including a man's driver's license found in the Klines' apartment, and fingerprints and pubic hairs that did not match Joe's or the victims'.

"There is nothing in the physical evidence that links Joe to the murders," says Gerald Zerkin, one of Giarratano's lawyers. "The prosecution's whole case hinged on Joe's confessions, which were total nonsense." Zerkin says the confessions were inconsistent and contradictory. Giarratano claims that after his first four statements, he was coached by police to change the order of the murders and other details in his last confession.

The shadows of doubt that hang over Joe's conviction have touched off an international letter-writing campaign asking that Giarratano be given a new trial. Even Hollywood has taken notice; director Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July) and producer Gordon Freedman (Baby M) are planning a TV movie about Joe's life.

Most of the public pressure is directed at Mary Sue Terry, Virginia's attorney general, who is expected to run for governor in 1993. She has refused to reopen Joe's case. Her position, says a spokesman, is that "the case has been decided in the courts. The so-called new evidence is just old evidence wrapped up in a new package with a bow on it."

Marie Deans opposes the death penalty despite the murder of her mother-in-law by an escaped convict who recently died in prison in Maine. She met Giarratano in 1983, when the state was preparing to carry out his sentence. "They had moved him to the death house in Richmond and taken him off Thorazine to prove he was competent to be killed," says the 49-year-old grandmother, who has a voice like a southern breeze and the vocabulary of a dockworker. "He was bat s—-, perching in unnatural positions for hours, hearing voices. When he was coherent, he would argue with me that the state was justified in killing him."

"She didn't cut me any slack," Joe recalls. "She told me, 'Bulls—-, you're just committing suicide.' She told me I wasn't a monster, I was a human being, and she cared about me. Nobody had ever told me things like that before. At Mecklenburg I've been beaten, dragged down stairs, thrown in isolation. Still, the best experiences of my life have happened right here, under sentence of death."

Giarratano is not sure where or when he was born. He says that his mother abused him with a cattle prod and beat him throughout his childhood. He says he was taking LSD and morphine when he was 10 years old—"It was around the house," he explains—and slashed a wrist when he was 15. Two years later, after stealing a car to escape from reform school, he was sent to an adult prison in Florida. There he met his natural father for the first time. "He was just a convict with the same name," says Joe. "That's the only time I've seen him."

Today, Giarratano frequently considers life after prison. "I know I don't want to be a lawyer!" he says. "Right now I'm sick of lawyers." But his thoughts never stray very far from the essential fact of his incarceration. Every month or so the prison computer spits out a status report that tells inmates when they will be released. Giarratano's always says the same thing: "Mandatory release date: death."

"Like a terminally ill patient, every minute has meaning for me," he says. "You become more aware of everything you do, from lighting a cigarette to picking up a piece of paper. In this place you either accept the reality of your death and take charge of it—or you go crazy. Death is here every minute of every day." He pauses and smiles faintly.

"But life is here too."