CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town By Pete Earley Bantam. 416 pp. $23.95

On the night Walter McMillian, a black woodcutter in rural Alabama, was arrested for homicide, he phoned his wife from jail to say not to worry: "Once I tells them they gots the wrong man, they will let me go." Sure. Plus a limousine to take him home and a phone call from the governor to apologize for any inconvenience.

When McMillian did explain the next day that he was home with his family and friends at a fish fry on the November 1986 morning when Ronda Morrison, a white teenager, was murdered in the Monroeville, Ala., dry cleaners where she worked, the sheriff who listened was disbelieving: "I don't give a damn what you say or what you do. I don't give a damn what your people say either. I'm going to put twelve people on a jury who are going to find your goddamn black ass guilty."

That forecast, as recounted by the defendant in court documents, proved to be accurate. In a two-day trial in February 1988, McMillian, who followed the advice of his lawyer and did not testify, was found guilty and sentenced to die in Alabama's electric chair, known as "Yellow Mama." Investigators, prosecutors, jurors, the victim's family and jarred townspeople were all convinced that justice had been done.

That would have been it -- another obscure capital punishment case in the South's Death Belt, where nearly 85 percent of U.S. executions are carried out -- except for Bryan Stevenson. In November 1988, when he began investigating the murder, Stevenson was the director of the newly formed Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center in Montgomery. When offered a starting salary of $60,000 -- he was a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School -- he refused. A salary of $18,000 would be fine. Money was not the reason for choosing the law.

Stevenson, then 28, was unorthodox in another way. He went beyond being only a specialist in post-conviction capital law -- a rare practice in itself -- to being an attorney who saw his death row clients as human beings, not cases. He liked visiting prisoners' families, as he did McMillian's, along with friends and the impoverished neighborhood where they lived.

In understated prose based on facts carefully researched in Monroeville, Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, relates the story of Ronda Morrison's murder and Bryan Stevenson's heroic persistence in proving that Walter McMillian was framed. At times, Earley's reporting has the bracing flavor of fiction, as if he were a masterly novelist displaying his imagination in a crime thriller. This tale couldn't be true, a reader might think, as Earley describes the race-based corruption of Alabama's legal system. It couldn't be true that the authorities sent McMillian to a death row cell before his trial, the better to frighten him into a confession. It couldn't be true that prosecutors withheld evidence that would have proven McMillian's innocence or that they blithely accepted from a couple of sketchy characters testimony that later proved to be perjury. Nor could it be true that no one responsible for caging McMillian for six years ever apologized to him for the wrongful imprisonment.

Earley went to Monroeville well before the case concluded and McMillian was freed on March 2, 1993. He wanted to observe the process, however it turned out, "to show just how difficult it can be in a death penalty case to discover the truth . . . I went to a small town because in a close-knit community, crime and punishment always wear a human face. Neither the victim nor the accused are strangers. Those responsible for dispensing justice -- investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge and the jurors -- cannot hide under a blanket of big-city anonymity, or forget the role they have played, when each day they encounter the victim's grieving parents or the distraught spouse of a condemned man."

Earley is a fair-minded reporter, which means that he sees no reason to give even a hint of his views on capital punishment. He apparently decided that his own feelings were irrelevant to the story. There is a purity to this kind of journalism, one that bestows an honor on the fact-seeking reader. Those who favor executions will come away from "Circumstantial Evidence" as unsettled as those who oppose them. Both sides will understand the sentiment of District Attorney Thomas Chapman, who had stoutly defended the rightness of McMillian's conviction as a merciless killer but then learned otherwise when the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the lower court. "I want to do everything I can so that your client will not have to spend a single day more than he already has on death row," Chapman said to Stevenson in late February 1993. "I feel sick about the six years that {McMillian} has spent in prison and the part I played in keeping him there."

Both sides can also understand the thinking of Bryan Stevenson, who told Earley: "For generations, blacks in {Monroeville} had been held down and then -- when the sixties came along and the schools were integrated and black people were allowed to vote and they took down the Colored Only' signs -- it was as if someone had taken one heel off these people's necks and they were so pleased to breathe with only one boot heel still on their necks that basically they constructed their lives to protect that. They hadn't thought about getting rid of that other boot heel. Instead, they had learned to accommodate whites and had accepted the day-to-day racism. Walter McMillian's conviction had suddenly jolted them back into reality. They realized that any of them or their sons or their daughters were vulnerable, that if a white man accused them of murder, they too could be convicted."

If McMillian had not been sent to death row but given a life sentence -- as the jury had recommended until overruled by the trial judge -- he would probably be languishing in a prison today.

Which raises a question that only a few citizens like Bryan Stevenson and Pete Earley wonder about: How many falsely accused and wrongfully convicted people are in prison today? That question leads to another: Why aren't U.S. law schools inspiring more students to follow Stevenson's path, and why aren't the editors of more U.S. newspapers turning loose reporters to get the stories of other Walter McMillians who are surely wasting away in dark anonymity? The reviewer is a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a volunteer teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.