Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson took center stage today in one of the nation's most controversial rape cases, questioning Gary Dotson and Cathleen Crowell Webb about the 1977 assault for which Dotson has spent six years in prison and which Webb now says never occurred.

Much of the hearing before the previously obscure state Prisoner Review Board was carried live by Cable News Network. Thompson, who had not presided over a board meeting in eight years as governor, will decide whether to clear Dotson's record, pardon him, commute his sentence or send him back to prison, based on the board's recommendation.

"From the day of my arrest . . . I told anyone who would listen I was not guilty," Dotson told the 11-member board and nearly 600 spectators. But the "nightmare doesn't seem to end." He is free on $100,000 bond pending the hearing, which is to resume Friday, and other appeals.

In the news media's attention to Webb, he said, "no one wanted to remember me . . . . But what else can I say or do except to say to you, I am innocent."

Webb, 23, repeated the recantation she first made in March. "The whole thing was a lie," she said of her accusation against Dotson when she was 16.

"You weren't his victim," Thompson said at one point.

"No," Webb replied.

"He was your victim," Thompson said.

"That's correct," she replied.

Recantations are rare in American jurisprudence, and Webb's has caused concern among feminist groups at a time when the reporting and handling of sex crimes against women have become a national issue.

More than 150 reporters and cameramen covered the hearing in the basement auditorium of the new State of Illinois Center here. Besides CNN, which can reach 32 million households nationwide, the local CBS station preempted its entire entertainment schedule today to broadcast live.

The "extraordinary case" demanded his presence, Thompson said, because the "Illinois criminal justice system is being examined by the world."

Thompson, who rose to political prominence as a U.S. attorney, brought a prosecutor's flair for detail and drama to the questioning. His businesslike demeanor was in contrast to the joviality he exhibited in two photos on the front page of today's Chicago Tribune, showing him displaying a t-shirt with "Go to Jail" and "Get Out of Jail Free" printed on either side. His staff gave him the shirt on his recent 49th birthday.

Under the governor's questions, Dotson drew a self-portrait of an aimless teen-ager who had several run-ins with police in the southwestern Chicago suburb of Country Club Hills.

According to a police report from which Thompson read, Dotson had 13 encounters with police from 1971 to July 15, 1977, when he was arrested for Webb's rape. They ranged from a truancy charge to a complaint that he contributed to the sexual delinquency of a minor. The complaint was lodged, and withdrawn a day later, by a woman who had found him with her daughter in a car parked in the woman's driveway.

Wearing a beige suit and with his long hair and mustache neatly combed, Dotson never looked at Webb during today's session. He repeated testimony he gave at the trial and at a hearing last month that he had spent the day of the alleged rape with friends -- drinking beer, playing pool and being driven to several parties before returning home to fall asleep on a couch. He lived then with his widowed mother, five sisters and a brother.

Webb, now a New Hampshire housewife, repeated her claim that she fabricated the rape and kidnaping -- inflicting her own injuries and ripping her clothes -- because she feared that her boyfriend had made her pregnant. She described herself as "willful, a real handful" for her foster parents, who are expected to testify Friday.

In an opening statement, Webb said she had never seen or met Dotson before picking his photo at random from a book of mug shots. However, she said, the board must now believe in "Gary Dotson's absolute innocence."

She complained that critics have accused her of "instability and cult religion." Wearing an embroidered white blouse and lavender skirt, Webb testified in a clear, strong voice that she had lived with her lie until she became a born-again Christian in 1981.

Asked by Thompson what he would do if he were freed, Dotson replied, "I want to get on with my life . . . . I look forward to having a family."

Webb and Dotson presented similar testimony at a hearing last month before the original trial judge, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard Samuels. Samuels rejected Webb's recantation and sent Dotson back to prison, but the Illinois Supreme Court later set bond. Thompson could rule on the clemency petition this weekend.