BOYDTON, VA. -- They mowed the lawn outside the Mecklenburg Correctional Center this morning, and the smell of freshly cut grass is strong. It floats past the flagpole, past the diesel fuel tower, past the razor-wire fence, past the kitchen, all the way back to Building 1. Where the death row inmates live.

Roger Keith Coleman, sitting in his 8-by-10-foot cell, smelled the grass this balmy morning. It was one of the nicest things he's experienced in a while, though it didn't come close to the time he saw the moon. In April they moved him to a different cell and he saw the moon outside his window for the first time in years. He gazed at it, he says, and wept.

Coleman, 28, was sentenced to death in April 1982 for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. No date has been set for his execution, pending appeals, which are running out. Last month he lost a habeas corpus appeal in Virginia Supreme Court, but his attorneys plan to appeal the decision in state court. Five years ago, he founded an unusual crime deterrence program called "The Choice Is Yours," supported by a nationally distributed video produced by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and featuring him. The 20-minute video, along with prison discussions by Coleman, all aimed at teen-agers, detail the gruesome monotony of prison existence that awaits those who pursue crime.

The program has been praised by prison and juvenile authorities as well as school and church officials. It has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Corps program as a counseling resource. Coleman has been featured in dozens of news stories and on two nationally syndicated religious radio programs, an NBC news broadcast and ABC's "Good Morning America." He says ABC is considering making his video into an "Afterschool Special" and that he's received nearly 500 letters from youngsters since his program began. "It's gotten bigger than I ever dreamed," he says.

This comes as a shock to residents and law enforcement officials in Coleman's home town of Grundy, population 1,700, located in the Appalachian coal-mining mountains of southwest Virginia, where he was convicted of one of the most horrible crimes Buchanan County has ever seen -- the rape and stabbing murder of Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy, 19, a sister of his wife, who later divorced him. "The program has its good points," says Buchanan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Randall S. Jackson, "but the man making it, I have problems with that. I know the individual involved here. I know what he's capable of doing. It's the most brutal crime I ever saw. Is that what they let them do up there? Make tapes and get in the newspaper and on TV? It's a big cover-up for him. Roger is very bright. Very smart. I think he's playing dumb. He's conjuring up a way to save his own skin."

Coleman, wearing glasses and bandanna, his hair neatly combed, stands in the contact visiting room of Mecklenburg Correctional Center, legs shackled, wrists cuffed to a waist chain. The shackles jingle so noisily as he moves about, it sounds as if he's got a pocket full of change. But prisoner No. 128287 makes only $27.90 a week. He spends most of it on envelopes and stamps.

There are five teen-agers from Strasburg, Va., sitting behind a desk facing him. They call themselves "The Hellies" because they like to raise hell. Three of them raised hell breaking into a store that had suffered a fire and swiping six cases of beer. They didn't get far before a cop nabbed them and a juvenile judge assigned them to a guidance counselor at their high school. The counselor had heard about Coleman's program through its chief spokesman, public relations consultant, executive producer and principal financial sponsor, Coleman himself, who sent out letters to every juvenile judge and guidance counselor in Virginia five years ago offering himself and his program.

"The purpose of this visit is not for you all to like me, or to feel sorry for me," Coleman tells the boys. "The reason you're here is to see what prison life is really like." They listen carefully as he describes, with stunning clarity, his prison life: He's spent a total of two years on lock down, confined to his tiny cell 24 hours a day, released only for three eight-minute showers a week. He sleeps on a slab of steel with a 1 1/2-inch foam mattress. "It's my home," he says of his cell. "It's my living room, kitchen, bathroom, library and anything else you want to name. My cell is probably smaller than the bathroom you have at home. Try spending the night in your bathroom. See what it feels like."

Two prison guards flank him as he talks.

"I was an outdoors person when I was free," says Coleman, who played on the Grundy Senior High basketball, track and football teams. "Now, when the guards say I can go outside, I can go outside. When they say I stay inside, I stay inside. They control my life." He's allowed three recreational periods a week, four 15-minute phone calls a month and noncontact visits on weekends. Contact visits are limited to immediate family, 30 minutes per person, two hours maximum. "Last month a visitor came down to see me from New Jersey," he says. "I would have liked to hold her hand. I couldn't ...

"I've got a mother somewhere in Michigan," says Coleman, who was raised by his grandparents, both of whom, he says, died during his years in prison. "When she last moved in 1985, she conveniently forgot to send me her new address. I don't know where to write her. When you're in prison, people forget you. Those that you think are your close friends, the really close ones, they forget you. There's no air conditioning, no video games. This isn't the Holiday Inn. This is the Mecklenburg Correctional Center. It's not a hotel. It's a prison."

He eyes them carefully. "I came within five days of being executed. Five of my friends have not been so lucky ... Sometimes we look at one another and say, 'Who's next?' ...

"You're never safe. Guys will buy a contract on your life for two cartons of cigarettes. That's what your life is worth. Two cartons of cigarettes. April 20th, a friend of mine, I've known him since he came here, 4 1/2 years, he hung himself in the shower. That was a blow to me. That morning I was talking to him. That night he was dead."

Coleman fixes his gaze on the row of seated teen-agers.

"Take a minute to think about what's most important to you," he says. "Take a minute."

There is a long, uncomfortable silence.

"Now remember -- whatever it is, you lose it."

It's pouring rain in Grundy. Michael G. McGlothlin, standing under an umbrella, swings open the door of the Buchanan County Courthouse. "C'mon," he says. "I want to show you something." He jogs up four flights of stairs and enters the commonwealth attorney's office, which was his office five years ago during Coleman's trial. He sits down in a large conference room, a pile of court transcripts and a huge legal file on the table before him.

McGlothlin, now a private-practice attorney in Grundy, pulls the file close and thumbs through the papers. "I've heard so much about this fella," he says in the lyrical, warm twang of southwest Virginia, "and I've seen so much about him, I'd like somebody to see the other side." He pulls out a coroner's diagram of Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy.

She was slashed so brutally across the neck that Tom Scott, the other prosecuting attorney in the trial, describes her as "nearly decapitated." Her body was discovered by her husband Brad McCoy, then 21, a parts clerk for the United Coal Co., who came home from work on the night of March 10, 1981, and found his high school sweetheart on the floor of their home in the Long Bottom section of Grundy. She lay in a pool of blood, her hair pulled up over her face, her panties around one ankle, her throat slashed deep enough to sever her larynx and thyroid glands. She had also been stabbed twice in the chest, the coroner's report indicating that one of the wounds, penetrating her heart and lungs, occurred after the throat wound that took her life. At the trial, there was some dispute as to whether the rape occurred while McCoy was still alive. There was no sign of forcible entry into the home.

The murder stunned the residents of Grundy, the seat of Buchanan County, a friendly place of roughly 36,000 where any homicide is considered out of the ordinary. "It was a heinous crime," says Lodge Compton, a lifelong resident of Buchanan County and editor of the Virginia Mountaineer, a local weekly. "One of the two worst crimes that I can remember. We just don't have this type of crime around here." The last memorable slaying in Grundy was the mid-'70s murder of a woman by her husband, who rigged her car to blow up when she hit the left-turn signal.

McGlothlin arrived at the McCoy house as state investigators were gathering evidence. "I suppose you had to see it to believe it," he says, fingering his spectacles. "I've seen a lot of homicides, but I've never seen anything that bothered me like that one did. I've searched for a long time to find an explanation as to how a human being can behave that way. The evidence convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt that he {Coleman} is guilty. He's a smart fella. He says he didn't do it. But if you ever see a crime like that one, lying is a small crime compared to it."

Before the McCoy conviction, Coleman had served 20 months and a day of a three-year sentence for the April 7, 1977, attempted rape of a schoolteacher at gunpoint. The woman testified in the McCoy trial that Coleman had forced her to tie her 6-year-old daughter to a baby rocking chair, then ushered her to an upstairs bedroom before she managed to escape with her child.

He had also been indicted by a Buchanan County grand jury in April 1981 for publicly "expos{ing} his genitals and masturbat{ing} while in the Buchanan County Public Library" in front of two female employes. McGlothlin says Coleman was not prosecuted on that charge after he was found guilty of rape and capital murder in the McCoy trial.

Coleman was linked to the McCoy murder through a battery of forensic evidence: Two "foreign" hairs found on the victim were found "consistent" with Coleman's; blood on a pair of jeans he allegedly wore on the night of the murder was the same type as the victim's; his blood type matched that of the sperm found in the victim; and the blue jeans that investigators took from him the day following the murder were still wet up to the depth of a creek near the victim's home.

Coleman said he was not at his sister-in-law's house that evening and traced his activities elsewhere. His attorneys argued that Coleman did not have time to commit the murder in the half hour that was unaccounted for except by his own testimony.

A jury of four men and eight women found Coleman guilty of rape and capital murder and recommended the death sentence, which was imposed by Circuit Court Judge Nicholas E. Persin. "I hope you can appreciate how difficult it is to sit behind the bench and look at a fellow human being and have to sentence him to death," Persin says now. "I've only had to do that once in my life. It's a very difficult thing to do."

News of Coleman's program is a thorn in the side of Grundy. McCoy's family declines comment, but many in the community doubt Coleman's sincerity. "I really don't think he's doing this because he's bored or he cares about kids," says one resident who asked to remain anonymous. "He's using it to bend the ears of a judge and get their sympathies."

What incenses law enforcement authorities most is that in his videotape Coleman says he was "arrested" for, not convicted of, capital murder, and implies that his reputation for drinking and fighting made him a suspect for any wrongdoing. Buchanan County law enforcement officials insist he had no such reputation. Coleman doesn't mention rape in the video, nor McCoy by name. "I separate the program from my innocence," he says. His last state appeal was dismissed by a three-judge panel of the Virginia Supreme Court without a hearing. If asked by youngsters visiting the prison, he says that he is innocent and focuses again on aspects of his prison existence.

Bob Edwards, director of communications at the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, who filmed the video himself and is responsible for distributing it, says it "wasn't meant to say whether Roger Coleman was guilty or innocent, or that capital punishment was good or bad. It's meant to tell a young person who's headed for a life of crime, 'This is where you'll end up.' It wasn't meant to be a moral type of thing."

Mecklenburg officials, who support the program, consider Coleman's denial of guilt a flaw in his rehabilitation. "The average criminal in some ways tries to minimize what they've done to get here," says Lynn Harvel, treatment program supervisor. "From a counseling perspective, he's not owning up to that responsibility."

McGlothlin is far more vehement in his views. "I think the message on the tape is skewed," he says. "It doesn't deal with the morality of the issue. He has not repented for anything he's done wrong. He's telling children, 'Don't violate the law or this is where you'll end up,' but the reason he shouldn't have killed Wanda McCoy is not because it puts him on death row. The reason he shouldn't have killed her was because she was a human being. I'm surprised the Catholic Church is involved."

As he sits in the commonwealth attorney's office with the McCoy file before him, the anger climbs into his face. "That tape is not an appropriate representation of the issues. If you show why you shouldn't drive a car at a high rate of speed, you show accident victims and wrecks. If you show why Hitler was a madman, you show pictures of the Holocaust. If you show someone why they shouldn't commit capital murder, you show horrendous pictures of the victim.

"Nobody," McGlothlin snaps, pointing a finger at the file, "says anything in that tape about what happened in the murder of Wanda Faye McCoy. She was a fine, upstanding citizen. Her whole life was ahead of her."

Sgt. William Oliver, head of the Mecklenburg Prison Emergency Response Team, stands in the contact visiting room facing the Hellies with his hands on his hips and his legs spread. At 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, in his tall black boots, dark blue uniform and cap, a night stick, handcuffs and chains jingling off his belt, he looks like a cross between an African chief and Mr. T. His handsome features are hidden behind dark shades, his mouth set in a tight line.

He's been at Mecklenburg eight years. He was there in May 1984 when six death row inmates escaped, the largest death row escape in U.S. history. (All six were captured.) He was there during the July 1984 disturbance in which six inmates and 10 guards received minor injuries during two melees that lasted 75 minutes. He also helps with Coleman's program, telling his own side of it. "I do life here too," he says. "Eight hours at a time."

He glares at the group of kids. "I'm not here to scare you, just give you the reality of how it is. Once you come inside these walls, the rules change. You have no options in here. If you were a prisoner here," he points to a red-haired kid, "I could take you in the back, strip you down from top to bottom, and search you. I can search your cell. Any time."

He turns to a window and runs his hand around the metal window frame. "There are enough weapons in this window, that if this room were lined from wall to wall with prisoners, you could give each and every one of them a weapon. A nail, plastic spoon, toothbrush, piece of metal from a locker sharpened on concrete cement -- once you're in these walls, you will find weapons. And weapons will find you."

He crosses his huge arms over his chest. "There are a lot of dangerous people in this prison, and a lot of 'em aren't on death row. I'm here to tell you our doors are wide open for anybody who wants to come. Don't enter the system."

He steps back, a man of few words.

Coleman has the floor. "You see us standing here," he says, gesturing to Oliver, "to get this message to you all. Tomorrow, I might be trying to bash his head in, and he mine. I'm a prisoner, and he's a guard. He knows he can only trust me so much."

Oliver stands silent.

"I have nightmares," Coleman says. "I dream that they're taking me out of my cell, strapping me into the chair and throwing the switch. I've probably got another year or two of my appeals, and then maybe I'll get a date. I'm 28 years old. I may not live to see 30. I don't want to die."

Then his time is up. Two guards take him by the arms and escort him out.