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Dotson aiming to reverse conviction . Governor believed him guilty but granted freedom on basis of `mercy'

Gary Dotson is free from prison -- but his fight to clear his name continues. Attorneys for Mr. Dotson, a convicted rapist, are moving ahead to try to overturn his conviction. One avenue open to them -- a post-conviction petition in Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court -- is expected to move forward fairly quickly.

Six years ago, Dotson was convicted of raping a teenager who now says she never was raped. Two recent hearings have done little to clear up the case.

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The innocence of Dotson from south suburban Chicago, remains unproven. Doubts about Cathleen Crowell Webb's new testimony -- that she had not been raped -- have mounted. Mrs. Webb, who now lives in New Hampshire, came before national television in late March to say she had made up the story about being raped.

Over the weekend, Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson attempted to disperse the cloud he said was hanging over the state's judicial system. After personally taking up the questioning of witnesses at a highly publicized three-day hearing, he commuted Dotson's sentence to the six years he had already served in prison. The ruling allows Dotson to go free subject to good behavior.

The governor, however, did not pass judgment on Dotson's guilt or innocence.

``After all has been done, and said, and heard, this case is still troubling,'' Governor Thompson said Sunday as he commuted the sentence. He said he did not believe Webb's new testimony in which she claimed she had made up the rape because she was afraid she was pregnant. Thompson added, too, that he was satisfied Dotson was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with the outcome of the original trial in 1979.

Although the governor had the power to pardon Dotson, he said Dotson had failed at the latest hearing to show a substantial likelihood of his innocence. Still, commuting the sentence ``has to do with the larger quality of mercy -- of compassion for one's fellow man in the circumstances in which we all find ourselves today, not in 1977 or 1979, but in 1985.''

Thompson said he commuted the sentence because Dotson already had served a long time in prison with good conduct, and now his alleged victim wants him freed. And, apparently bowing to public pressure for Dotson's release, the governor said he commuted the sentence to remove the cloud over the Illinois judicial system.

While pleased by Thompson's decision, Dotson and his lawyers are pressing forward to clear his name of the conviction.

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``I think we're all committed to seeing it through to its conclusion,'' says Jack Rimland, a Chicago defense attorney assisting in the case. The lawyers are pushing on two fronts. The first is a post-conviction petition in the Cook County Court asking for a new trial, based on constitutional errors in the original trial, he says.

Dotson's second front is an appeal before the Illinois Appellate Court. The defense attorneys want the court to overturn the decision by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who ruled last month that Dotson should go back to prison because Webb's new testimony was unbelievable.

In either case, Dotson would not go back to prison, even if found guilty, because the governor already has commuted the sentence.

``It's an unusual situation to be in,'' Mr. Rimland says. And it's difficult to say what will happen next, he adds. ``There's been too many unlikely things that have happened [already].''

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