Even though concern about the pace of executions in Virginia is mounting, defenders of the state's death penalty point with pride to one statistic: Since 1973, no Virginia death row inmate has ever been exonerated.

Technically, they're right.

But they've forgotten about David Vasquez. Almost everyone has.

A developmentally disabled custodian from Manassas, Vasquez was so scared of execution that he effectively pleaded guilty to a 1984 rape and murder he did not commit.

And he would still be in prison today--or, perhaps, executed had he not agreed to a plea bargain--except for a bizarre stroke of luck. In 1987, the real killer finished serving an unrelated prison term and went on a murderous rampage. Faced with a swath of similar crimes, Virginia officials realized their mistake. But not before Vasquez had spent five years behind bars and been repeatedly raped.

"The system stinks," said Vasquez, 53, who lives in Manassas with his disabled mother. "They read [the plea agreement] to me, and I didn't understand it. But they told me, 'Sign it and you won't go to the electric chair.' "

Carolyn Jean Hamm was found raped and hanged in her Arlington basement in January 1984. A neighbor told police that she had seen Vasquez, who used to live nearby, outside Hamm's home. Two detectives yelled, cajoled and lied to Vasquez, saying they had found his fingerprints inside Hamm's house, court records show.

Confused, he fell apart. As the officers questioned Vasquez about the brutal details, he began to parrot them, and in two subsequent police interviews, he described a "horrible dream" that paralleled the case.

"They pushed me. They put words into my mouth," Vasquez said. "I was repeating everything they were saying."

His lawyers argued that the interrogations were tainted because of Vasquez's low intelligence and because he had not been told of his rights at the first interview. A judge ruled prosecutors could use the third statement, which came after Vasquez waived his rights.

Faced with the "dream," Vasquez's court-appointed attorneys persuaded him to enter an "Alford plea," acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict.

One of the lawyers, Richard McCue, said recently that he believed the judge was wrong to admit the dream as evidence. But McCue said he was trying to save his client's life. "To rely on . . . appeal was a long shot," he said. "The Virginia Supreme Court rarely reverses these cases.

"If he had gone to trial and had been sentenced to death, by the time the exculpatory evidence was discovered, he could have been executed," the lawyer said.

Three years after Hamm's murder, Timothy W. Spencer finished serving a prison sentence for burglary. Over the next three months, he assaulted and killed three women near Richmond, and, while visiting family in Arlington, he raped and strangled a woman four blocks from Hamm's former home.

Eventually, police used DNA to link Spencer to the four 1987 killings and a 1983 rape in Arlington. He was executed in 1994. There was no DNA left from the Hamm case, but the similarities convinced Arlington prosecutors that Vasquez was innocent.

But under Virginia law, neither Vasquez nor the prosecutors could go to back to court. The state's 21-day deadline for introducing new evidence, the toughest in the nation, had long since passed.

"I was absolutely shocked that if a prosecutor determined that someone was innocent that we couldn't just let the person out of jail," said U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey, who was then the local prosecutor. "Instead we had to go to the governor."

Then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) obliged with a pardon in 1989. Now Vasquez works as a clerk at a Giant supermarket and tries not to think about his years in prison.

"It makes you want to cry. They didn't put a man in prison, they put a child," said Vasquez's mother, Imelda "Mel" Shapiro.

Other inmates have also turned to the governor. Since 1981, Virginia governors have commuted 12 death sentences, more than any state except Texas.

Attorneys for Earl Washington Jr. turned up DNA evidence that all but proved he was innocent of a 1982 rape and murder. But the Fauquier County man, who is mentally retarded, accepted life in prison from then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) in 1994 because he couldn't go back to court.