The punishment of Charles Keating has begun. Even before a jury has been chosen, a California judge, eager to increase his voter-approval rating, sets a bond so incredibly high that it be comes nothing less than an indefinite jail sentence. This preposterous ruling by a judge trying to curry public favor is really unethical. The only possible result will be in the creation of a groundswell of sympathy for Keati ng. I don't pretend to know whether Keating has hidden millions away or not. My guess is that he probably has. But I don't know for sure and neither does the judge. But clearly, Keating has a constitutional right to a rea sonable bail. In the first place, bail isn't meant to be used as a punishment. It is merely an amount necessary to ensure that the person charged will not flee the court's jurisdiction. Keating is likely to do a lot of things. He may try to borrow enough money to buy the courthouse or even the state of California but he's not likely to run away from the spotlight. He has deep family roots which are within the boundaries of the United States and the chances of his disappearing are nonexistent. Keating is obviously one of the biggest swindlers in modern history, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve all the protections granted to any citizen. I admit to flinching while taking this stance. But keeping Keating locked up becomes cruel and unusual punishment because it is clearly a punitive act. Besides, it does us no good to strip Keating of his civil rights because it can only set a prec edent that can be used later against others who really deserve our sympathy. Let's not congratulate ourselves prematurely at his demise. Clearly, if a reasonable bail is set, Keating can make it. Keating is both clever an d resourceful. When it comes time, he will put up a legal defense that may convince at least one of the jurors that he is a man who has been falsely accused. Remember: All Keating needs is one juror to say that he's innocent a nd he must be set free. Don't think that because he has been convicted in newspaper stories that Keating can't win. The government had a hidden camera take pictures of John DeLorean opening a cache of cocaine, and it had his voice on the soundtrack admitting his guilt. The government had Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry on film snorting coke, but it couldn't destroy him either. The Keating prosecutors will have a mountain of paperwork to back up their charges. But the case must traverse over confusing pathways that will be difficult for some jurors to follow. Don't be shocked if Keating is ultimately acquitted. Friends keep poking me in the ribs and a sking if I've seen Keating's picture in shackles on the front pages of the newspapers. "Keating's getting exactly what he deserves," they say with such grim satisfaction. I am always cowardly in these situations. I nod ag reement, unwilling to rock the boat. There's a difference between the people who now gloat over Keating's predicament and Keating himself. Keating is one mean son of a bitch who isn't about to quit. We sell him short at o ur own peril. And still . . . I never realized before how terribly dehumanizing denim jail suits can be until I saw Keating dressed in one the other day. He was clamped in shackles and dressed in that shapeless jail outfi t. This is a man whom we only have seen wearing tailor-made suits that came for better than a grand apiece. Now, his trousers were too short. The camera deliberately showed us Keating was still wearing his black dress shoes wi thout socks. The television cameras followed him every step of the way. They focused on Keating exclusively as he stood and waited to enter his plea. From the defiant expression on his face, Keating might have been either a renowned freedom fighter or some great patriot in the dock. He showed no fear. He communicated no sense of guilt. I was reminded of something the late Rebecca West, one of the great journalists of this century, wrote for th e New Yorker during the sentencing of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring and the other Nazi leaders at the Nuremburg war crimes trials: "All had intelligence quotients far above the average . . . No literate person can now preten d that these men were anything but abscesses of cruelty. But we learned nothing about them we did not know before, except that they were capable of heroism to which they had no moral right, and that there is nothing in the legend t hat a bully is always a coward." And so it has been for Charles Keating as he has been displayed publicly in shackles. When it came time to make his plea, he was clearly ready for the fight of his life. "Absolutely n ot guilty," Keating said in a ringing voice that brimmed with confidence and defiance. This battle is far from over. Keating is obviously one of the biggest swindlers in modern history, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve all the protections granted to any citizen. From the defiant expression on his face, Keating might have been either a renowned freedom fighter or some great patriot in the dock.