Hillary Clinton was on the cover of a recent National Review magazine--pictured in profile, her hair long, her demeanor stern. "The Perfect Liberal," the conservative magazine headlined. Wrong, as usual. The Perfect Liberal, if there were such a thing, would have the guts to oppose capital punishment.

Mrs. Clinton does not. The death penalty has her "unenthusiastic support," she recently said. This is scant cheer to the condemned, some of whom--it is now apparent--are innocent. They are probably doomed anyway, a prospect that undoubtedly leaves them even less enthusiastic than Mrs. Clinton about the death penalty. Almost everyone else, though, seems serenely untroubled.

Among them, presumably, are the boys from the National Review. The founding editor, William F. Buckley, quit Amnesty International in 1978 because it condemned the death penalty. But that was back when capital punishment was a mere moral issue. Permit me to say that the question is no longer just about morality. It's about numbers.

Since 1973, 79 persons have been freed from death row on account of DNA testing. Some of them had been positively identified by eyewitnesses. Others had confessed. All of them, though, were innocent to a scientific certainty.

It stands to reason, therefore, that among the nation's 3,563 death row inmates are some innocent men. After all, the usual murder produces no relevant DNA. A person is shot and the killer flees, leaving behind none of his own blood, tissue, hair or semen. In that case, the wrongly convicted is plain out of luck. He will go to his death protesting his innocence while the rest of us cynically utter, "Sure, sure," and go on with our lives.

I don't know how to define liberalism anymore, and I don't blame the Clintons for the occasional zigzag. But I do blame them--particularly Bill Clinton--for championing the death penalty and attaching it to many of the administration's criminal-justice measures, a transparent attempt to show that Democrats could be hard on crime. On this issue, Bill Clinton has been a masterful politician. He has also been a shameless opportunist.

Now it is Hillary's turn. She might, as her opportunistic husband did, turn to the clergy for moral permission to take a life. Such clergymen are always available. They will cite this or that passage of the Bible--"an eye for an eye" usually suffices--permitting the craven politician to go where the votes are. This is what Gov. Bill Clinton did, breaking off campaigning in New Hampshire in 1992, consulting with a clergyman and then permitting the execution of a retarded killer who, as the police cornered him, had blown away part of his own brain.

Nowadays, though, a politician ought to ask his clergyman about the morality of executing an innocent person. He ought to have him balance that eventuality against the fact that capital punishment deters no one. Life without parole will do just fine. What is gained by the death penalty? Nothing. What is lost? Innocent life, among other things.

National Review is wrong about Mrs. Clinton, but understandably so. Liberals have been amazingly uncritical of the Clintons, embracing them both. Even the First Couple's support of the death penalty has elicited little more than a yawn. After all, the condemned are often animals. Questions about the death penalty's morality, even its efficacy, get put aside. If some killer is to die so liberalism can live, then so be it.

Now, though, it is no longer enough to ask whether a certain prisoner deserves to die. We must also ask whether the system that kills the guilty will also kill someone innocent. Once, capital punishment proponents could argue that the system was foolproof. No more. The criminal-justice system is flawed, occasionally corrupt, sometimes downright bizarre: O. J. walks. Innocent people sometimes get death sentences.

Ronald Jones spent eight years on Illinois' death row until DNA tests proved he could not have been the man who raped and murdered a Chicago woman. When he was finally freed last year, he became the 12th Illinois man in 12 years to have been exonerated after being condemned to die. Jones had confessed, later recanted and alleged he had been beaten by the cops.

I don't expect Hillary Clinton to change her position. Her likely Senate opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, is pro-death penalty, but no hypocrite. I don't get that sense with Mrs. Clinton. Her "unenthusiastic support" sounds discordant, out of whack with the rest of her ideology--a squalid compromise with political reality, an attempt to have it both ways. But for the condemned, there is no middle ground. The guilty will die for the crimes they committed, the innocent for the cowardice of politicians such as Hillary Clinton.