THE RELEASE OF Clyde Charles after 18 years in a Louisiana prison should humble a criminal justice system that seems ever more committed to a swiftly administered death penalty. Mr. Charles was serving a life sentence -- for rape -- when DNA evidence convincingly showed that his unwavering claims of innocence had been valid. Many convicts sentenced to death get executed in the period of time it took Mr. Charles to be exonerated. His case -- and others like it in which long-serving inmates have used DNA evidence to prove their innocence -- should make people wonder what business the legal system has in assuming that convictions are sufficiently unassailable to warrant so irreversible a punishment as death.

Mr. Charles was convicted largely on the strength of the victim's identification of him -- though the victim had shortly before described her assailant as clean-shaven and Mr. Charles had a beard and mustache. Race seems to have infused the case. Mr. Charles, who is African American, was convicted by an all-white jury, and the factual section of the appeals court decision upholding his conviction begins: "On March 12, 1981, a black man brutally raped a white woman." The state, moreover, refused for nine years Mr. Charles's request to test the semen sample obtained during examination of the victim -- lengthening the time it stole from his life. When Mr. Charles entered prison, he was a young man with a four-year-old daughter. By the time he emerged, he had diabetes and tuberculosis, had missed his 23-year-old daughter's entire childhood, and both of his parents and two of his brothers had died.

And unless the state legislature decides to pass special legislation to compensate him, it's all just tough luck. Compensation here seems a no-brainer, but such cases ask for more than money for their victims. Errors are a virtual certainty in any criminal justice system as overburdened as ours. Punishments must permit errors to be redressed, however long it takes to discover them and however impossible true recompense may be. For as distressing as his case may be, Mr. Charles is luckier than some: He was, after all, only wrongly convicted of rape, and he was only sentenced to life.