In a youth squandered as a newspaper reporter, I once covered a rape trial. When I listened to the prosecutor, I believed the prosecutor. When I listened to the defense attorney, I believed the defense attorney. In the end, the jury reflected my own confusion. It deadlocked. Sometimes the only thing that's certain is that nothing is certain.

And so it is with the case of Gary Dotson, the convicted rapist, and Cathy Crowell Webb, his adjudicated victim but no longer his accuser. In numerous interviews and across the channels of morning television, Webb has said that she lied when she identified Dotson as her rapist six years ago. She now says there was no rapist; she concocted the story because she was 16, sexually active and presumably feared she was pregnant.

She is very convincing. But then she was very convincing the first time. She either lied when she fingered Dotson or she is lying now. The trial judge opted for the latter, upholding the original jury verdict, but then it is said that this is what trial judges tend to do. They despise recantation the way football referees despise instant replays.

The case has become a bandwagon for causes. The women's movement is afraid that Webb's recantation bodes ill for rape victims. Who will believe them now? Cathy Webb, after all, is a defense lawyer's dream, the elusive, nearly mythical, phony rape victim -- a living, breathing stereotype that not only exists but gets shuttled by limousine from the "CBS Morning News" to the "Today Show." Getting dressed, looking over their shoulders at the tube, are the jurors of tomorrow.

As for lawyers and the legal community, they are quick to emphasize that recantation is common. Sometimes the convicted person bribes a witness into recanting; sometimes threats are used. The court is entitled -- strike that -- has an obligation to be very suspicious of recantation. And since the trial judge heard Webb on both occasions, we ought to accept his judgment. Close the book on this one.

Well, as long as issues other than Dotson's guilt or innocence are being dragged in, let me add one of my own: if this were the old days, if what Attorney General Edwin Meese III calls the "criminal lobby" had not gotten its way, rape might still be a capital crime and Dotson would be dead. Then everything would be academic, theoretical, and proponents of capital punishment would be saying, "Well, you know, these things happen." Indeed they do.

But what of Dotson? He has already served six years of a 25-to 50-year sentence, although he is eligible for parole in 1988. But he is eligible for either pardon or clemency now, and that -- one or the other -- is what he ought to get. After all, no one can possibly be convinced beyod any reasonable doubt of his guilt -- not even the trial judge.

There is always the chance that Doston really is a rapist and that he will rape again. But that could happen if, in the normal course of events, he eventually gets paroled. There is no telling what a person will do when he gets out of jail. There is also no telling what jail has done to Dotson. Presumably, he's no better for the experience.

Webb's recantation puts us all in the position I was in years ago when I did not know whom to believe in that rape trial. I thought then that it's better for a rapist to go free than for an innocent man to go to jail. That applies now to Gary Dotson. His guilt -- along with public confidence that justice was done -- is now in doubt. For the sake of both, he should be freed. Uncertainty is better than injustice any day.