THE DOTSON CASE, which at times has combined elements of soap opera, mystery and soul-baring talk show, has now been resolved. Gov. James Thompson of Illinois, after carefully -- and publicly -- reviewing the evidence that originally convicted Mr. Dotson of rape, together with the recent statement of his alleged victim, Cathleen Crowell Webb, that the crime never took place, has granted clemency. The governor finds Mrs. Webb's recantation "incredible" in light of the evidence, but because Mr. Dotson has already served more time than the average rapist and because there is no way of knowing with absolute certainty which of Mrs. Webb's stories is true, the convicted man will not have to serve another day of his 25-to 50-year sentence. The decision is a sensible response to a difficult dilemma.

In the past 10 years, attitudes toward the crime of rape and its victims have changed dramatically. Statutes imposing difficult standards of proof have been amended; police and prosecutors have set up special units to deal with these offenses; support services for victims have been greatly increased.

Some who fought hard for these changes now fear Mrs. Webb's recantation will cast doubt on all victims' testimony. But why should that be if the reforms themselves were sound? Why should laws and attitudes about a widespread and violent crime be called into question just because the result in a single case is called into question?

The victim's testimony in a rape trial is of critical importance, but there is almost always other evidence as well. Visible injuries, physical evidence, alibi testimony all were present in the Dotson case and contributed to his conviction. Juries weigh all this and assess the credibility of both the victim and the defendant. In an imperfect world, juries occasionally make mistakes -- though it now appears this did not happen in the Dotson case. Twenty-four years ago, three young Montgomery County black men were sentenced to death for raping a 16-year-old white girl, but after six years of investigation and litigation by concerned citizens, the government's case against Joseph Johnson and James and John Giles collapsed, and they were freed.

The real miscarriage of justice in the Giles case did not stop the revision of rape laws and the establishment of victim assistance programs, nor should the questionable recantation in the Dotson case. The reforms were commendable when they were adopted and are no less valid today than they were a short month ago before the whole world had heard of Gary Dotson or Cathleen Crowell Webb. EDITORIAL

After the Dotson Case