Add the name of George Ryan to my short, short list of political heroes.

I don't expect unanimity on that assessment, of course, since the way the recently departed governor of Illinois got on my list is by, in effect, canceling out his state's death penalty. He commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

That would be a pretty bold, perhaps autocratic, gesture for a principled opponent of capital punishment. But for a man who entered office as a death-penalty supporter, Ryan's action (to my mind, at least) rises above politics.

The Republican Ryan was, as they used to say about defecting liberals, mugged by reality. The assault began three years ago when investigations, led by Chicago-area students and professors, turned up evidence sufficient to clear 13 death row inmates. (Twelve had already been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.)

The discovery that so many innocents had been scheduled to die at the state's hands shook Ryan to the point of declaring a moratorium on executions until a commission he appointed could look at the whole system.

What makes Ryan's wholesale commutation so appealing to me is that it seems to be driven by the obvious injustice of the existing system -- and perhaps by doubts that it can be fixed.

Those are my doubts as well. I am not an absolutist on the question of capital punishment -- for or against. Every time I come close to deciding that official killing (save in war and police work) is something all civilized societies should abandon, I am hit by some truly horrendous crime that makes me say: Well, maybe this one should get the chair.

Maybe Washingtonians will remember the name of Catherine Fuller, the 48-year-old cleaning woman who in 1984 was robbed and then beaten to death by thugs who left a pipe rammed in her rectum. Marylanders might recall Pamela Basu, who 10 years ago was the victim of a carjacking by two men who threw her baby out of the car and dragged Basu (who became entangled in her seat belt when she tried to get out) more than 100 feet to her death. Most of America knows the name of James Byrd Jr., the Jasper, Tex., hitchhiker who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death.

These are among the cases that kept me from being categorical about the death penalty.

My second thoughts now are not about whether such brutal crimes warrant the death penalty but over my new certainty that we often convict the wrong brutes.

If only we could be sure.

Well, sometimes we are about as sure as human beings can be. Sometimes we are sure only because we believe the police and the prosecutors rather than the unsavory defendants. Sometimes we're sure because there's no one to raise the doubts.

What Ryan discovered, to his dismay, is that sometimes the evidence is misleading or incomplete, sometimes the critical testimony comes from people with something to gain, sometimes the authorities "cook" the evidence -- or just make it up.

By the time his term ended a week ago, he found himself saying of that review:

"Half -- half, if you will -- of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois have been reversed for a new trial or for some resentencing. Now, how many of you people here today that are professionals can get by and call your life a success if you're only 50 percent successful?"

You can do a lot better than half and still end up executing innocent people -- innocent, at least, of the crimes that landed them on death row.

I used to think the system needed fixing -- perhaps by requiring some greater certainty of guilt before applying the death penalty. But what greater certainty can there be than "beyond a reasonable doubt"?

This uncertainty is not the only problem with the system. It becomes clearer with each investigation that minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites, that prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty in crimes with white victims, that people with the money to pay for top lawyers virtually are never sentenced to death, that poor and ignorant defendants often are.

I don't know how such a system could be fixed. George Ryan is telling us that maybe it's silly to try. At least you can, with new evidence, change a sentence of life without parole.