A reporter for WRC, Channel 4, reported the death of convicted murderer Frank Coppola on the station's 11 p.m. newscast last night more than 20 minutes before the execution took place.

News Director David Nuell, reached by phone last night, confirmed the report, which was made by Jack Cloherty from Richmond at 11:03. Coppola's execution took place at 11:27.

"It looks like a mistake of some magnitude has been made," Nuell said when reached last night. "There is no excuse. The audience is owed an apology."

Nuell said a line apparently was dropped at the beginning of Cloherty's report in which the reporter explained that what followed was an official's description of the sequence of events in the forthcoming electrocution.

"Shortly before he went on the air an official came into the room," and Cloherty asked if the execution would proceed as originally scheduled at 11 p.m., Nuell said. "The official said, 'Yes, we're sticking to the plan," Nuell said. "Jack took that to mean everything was proceeding" as scheduled.

Nuell said that in the ensuing description of events, which Cloherty delivered in the past tense, "the unmistakable impression created for the anchor and audience was that the execution had actually taken place.

"When you listen to the script you can hear Jack say we're still waiting for confirmation from prison officials," Nuell said.

When confirmation was not immediately forthcoming, and no other news organizations reported Coppola's death, Nuell said, "we began to worry."

At 11:35, a half-hour after Cloherty's report, anchorman Marty Levine went on the air with a corrected version, Nuell said.

It was not the first time WRC was involved in such an incident. In June 1981, it was the first station to report what turned out to be the false rumor that Mayor Marion Barry had been shot.