A group of retired state and federal judges is urging Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) to commute the death sentence of any inmate whose conviction was tainted by flaws in the state's capital punishment system.

In a letter to Ryan released today, Moses Harrison, former chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, and 20 other judges suggested clemency for scores of inmates. They stopped short of asking the governor to make a blanket commutation.

Individually, however, some judges said the system is so riddled with problems that the governor ought to grant blanket clemency.

"The only way to be fair, the only way to be just, the only way to be equal is for the governor to change the death sentences . . . to life without the possibility of parole," said R. Eugene Pincham, a former state appellate judge.

Retired state appellate judge Anthony Scariano said that although there must be changes in the law to protect defendants in the future, "clemency is the proper way to address the problems of the past."

Ryan's spokesman, Dennis Culloton, said today that the governor's office had not seen the letter but would give it "a very serious study, seeing as the letter is signed by distinguished jurists who have seen firsthand the flaws that exist in the Illinois capital punishment system."

The judges listed problems with the system that were also raised by defense attorneys during recent clemency hearings before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. The problems included coerced confessions; testimony from jailhouse informants and accomplices in exchange for such incentives as lenient sentences; inadequate defense attorneys; and mental retardation.

The letter was the latest volley in the public relations battle waged since Ryan gained national prominence nearly three years ago by issuing a moratorium on executions, saying he could no longer trust that those on death row were guilty. Since the state resumed capital punishment in 1977, Illinois courts have found that 13 condemned men were wrongly convicted. Twelve were executed.

The battle intensified in October, when the Prisoner Review Board held two weeks of clemency hearings for 142 death row inmates.

During and after the hearings involving some of the most gruesome crimes in state history, prosecutors and victims' families held news conferences and gave interviews in support of the death sentences imposed. Opponents countered with events of their own, including a news conference featuring a North Carolina rape victim whose identification of her attacker helped put an innocent man behind bars for 11 years.

Some of the judges said during a news conference today that they hoped their letter would have some influence on Ryan, although Harrison said he doubted it would.