The hopes and fears of at least six others ride with Michael M. Smith.

Like Smith, they have been sentenced to die in the electric chair under Virginia's 1977 capital punishment law, and his challenge of the law's constitutionality, now headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court, may spare them.

But even if the court declines to hear Smith's case, as several lawyers involved say privately will happen, there will be no hurry to hook up the state's 70-year-old massive oak electric chair.

"We've got a while to go before there's any execution in this state," says Richard J. Bonnie of the University of Virginia Law School, a leading authority on, and foe of, capital punishment.

A mass of complex appeals is bound to begin trickling slowly through the federal court system on the merits of each case including Smith's, and by the time anything is revolved, there is the chance that the governor - by then perhaps John Dalton's successor - might grant clemency.

Five men now live on death row to the state penitentiary in Richmond, including Smith, convicted in James City County of the May 23, 1977, rape-slaying of Audrey J. Weiler, 35.

At least two others will be there soon, including James T. Clark Jr., sentenced to death by a Fairfex County jury in the murder-for-hire killing last January of George Harold Scarborough.

Thus while states like Maryland, with similar capital punishment laws, have yet to try someone on capital charges, Virginia clearly faces the possibility that its spartan nine-cell death row will overflow long before an execution occurs.

The growing death row population dates to the U.S. Supreme Court's July 2, 1976, ruling that, while upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty, set new guidelines of imposing it.

In the wake of that ruling, then Governor Mills E. Godwin commuted all Virginia death sentences pending, and the legislature redrew the Virginia capital punishment law to meet the high court's standards.

Under that law:

The death sentence is no longer mandatory for any crime.

If a defendant is found guilty of one of the six crimes for which death may now be imposed - all involving first degree murder - second trial is held to decide the sentence.

All death sentences are automatically appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The judge or jury can impose death if either the crime is found to be "vile, horrible or inhuman," or the defendant is found likely to commit similar violent crimes again.

"It's a good statute, because the legislature followed the pattern which was approved by the Supreme Court," says Assistant Virginia Attorney General James E. Kulp, Much of Virginia's law, in fact, is taken verbatim from the Texas law that the court upheld.

But opponents of the death penalty - or at least of what they say are the arbitrary ways in which it is handed out - contend that the so called "vileness" provision and the provision dealing with possible future violence, are weaknesses that may bring down the Virginia law.

"It involves telling the future, about which nobody has any expertise," says one lawyer associated with the Smith appeal, who cites several studies indicating that even behavioral experts have problems forecasting what somebody will or will not do.

The vileness provision comes under attack because, as capital punishment opponents note, what may be considered a horrible crime in Alexandria, for instance, could be seen as the traditional way of settling an old score in the hollows of Southwest Virginia.

"I think even with human nature, it would vary," Smith's chief lawyer, David F. Pugh of Williamsburg, says of the vileness standard.

Complicating Smith's case, his lawyers say, is the fact that he is black, and that he was sentenced by a jury that included 11 whites. "This adds fuel to the fire," Pugh says. "If you're black and poor, it's even worse."

If Smith's appeal succeeds in forcing the state to try to define more precisely what is vile and to seek a foolproof way to predict a defendant's future conduct, it could have a major impact on the roughly 400 persons on death rows nationwide. At least it might buy them time.

Even the Virginia Corrections Department, the state's official keeper of the electric chair, seems to expect a long wait. Had there been no appeals, Michael Smith would have died Dec. 4, the first person in the United States to be executed since Gary Gilmore died in Utah in January 1977.

But since Virginia's last execution was 16 years ago, nobody now working in the corrections department recalls the details of how the death penalty is to be carried out. Department officials, faced with the grim task of spelling it out all over again, have not decided who will pull the switch.

They have resolved one question, however. The executioner will get nothing extra for his gruesome task.

Says corrections spokesman Wayne Farrar: "We don't want anybody volunteering for it for extra money. We don't want a price on it."