A NORFOLK judge this week set Feb. 22 as the date for the execution of Joseph Giarratano, who has been on Virginia's death row for almost a dozen years. During that time, the inmate has achieved a certain fame, and his cause has been espoused by a number of columnists, media personalities and even a movie star or two. We have not been part of the effort to win him a new trial, nor are we convinced that he is clearly not guilty of the double murder for which he was convicted. But for an entirely different reason, we believe that Gov. Wilder should consider this case very carefully when he makes a decision on clemency.

Mr. Giarratano confessed to the 1979 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl and the murder of her mother. In fact, he has confessed a number of times, and the discrepancies among these versions are one of the reasons his conviction has been challenged. At trial, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but he was convicted in short order.

After more than a decade of appeals and habeas corpus review, the Supreme Court in October refused to grant him relief, closing the final door as far as the courts are concerned. But what we find fascinating about this case is not the crime or the course of the litigation but what Mr. Giarratano has done with his life since he was sentenced to death.

In prison, even on death row, he has become to a remarkable extent an expert on criminal law. It's not unusual for an inmate to become an authority on his own case, but Mr. Giarratano's efforts have gone far beyond that. He has done the research and filed papers for a number of other inmates, and his skill has been so remarkable that one of the cases he initiated went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a broad extension of the right to counsel.

Does this mean he should not be executed because he is clever, or because his work has won him support from influential people? Not at all. But the governor ought to consider the fact that this man has turned his life around even as he prepares to die. He has educated himself and devoted his energies to the needs of others over the last decade, and in spite of the crimes for which he was convicted, he has done something positive with his life.

Because capital punishment eliminates forever the chance that offenders will redeem themselves, it is society's concession to despair and failure. The governor should look with mercy on this and all the other death-row cases that come before him.