The gangly, 17-year-old youth, convicted of brutally beating an elderly woman, slouched behind the defense table, looking straight at the man on the judge's bench.

"There is, I suppose, an argument that no crime of this kind could be committed by a person who is truly well," said Judge Charles Stevens Russell.

Then, despite those words, Russell denied a motion to allow further psychiatric testing of the youth, who had a history of emotional problems, and imposed a sentence that many would consider severe: life, plus 20 years on a separate charge of robbery.

The crime, Russell continued in the polished, articulate phrases that have become his trademark, was "unparalleled in revulsion." The youth was convicted of beating a 72-year-old woman in her home and then leaving her unconscious under a pile of furniture.

Earlier, in the Arlington County Circuit Court where Russell presides, he had sentenced a 15-year-old youth involved in the beating and a similar assault to a term of life, plus 60 years.

Those decisions, several lawyers agree, were vintage Russell and typical of justice in Virginia, a state which -- despite escalating protests from harried officials about bulging jails and prisons -- traditionally has some of the toughest sentencing and parole policies in the country. Nationally Virginia ranks 10th in the length of its prison sentences and 12th in the percentage of its population it locks up.

While some reform advocates say Virginia officials should consider more alternatives to prison, the state's hard-line reputation pleases many state legislators who pick the state's judges, and Gov. John N. Dalton, who has made prison construction one of his top priorities. Despite complaints of overcrowding in the state prisons and jails, Dalton has made clear he likes the judges' penchant for stiff sentencing and has said, "I'm not going to tell them to stop."

One who isn't about to change is the 54-year-old Russell, who counts Supreme Court Chief Judge Warren E. Burger among his North Arlington neighbors.

"I'd rather be a Virginia judge than any other kind, including a federal one," says Russell, who earns $50,290 a year. "I like what I'm doing and I've very seldom been in a position where I felt like I was in the wrong place.

"Virginia has always been a very pleasant place to live, even for the poor. There's no tradition in this state of predatory capitalism, at least since slavery came to an end, and that was pretty predatory, I suppose."

Bill Dolan, one of Northern Virginia's most respected criminal lawyers, says: "Charles Russell is very reflective of the general philosophy and temperament of Virginia, which is easily the leading bastion of conservatism in the Union. He's a severe sentencer but he's not a mechanical individual. I think everybody's would say, and he would say, that he's a very conservative guy."

That description should please many in the General Assembly, which recently considered Russell, among others, for a seat on the state Supreme Court, one of the most conservative benches in the nation.

"I'm convinced he's the best candidate we've got for the court," says Arlington's Democratic state Sen. Edward P. Holland, who expects Russell to be considered for the next opening on the court. "I think he's a fair and compassionate person and besides, he's a friend of mine." t

The fact that Russell's friends and former classmates at the University of Virginia Law School include some of Virginia's elite -- among them state Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews, U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner and former state attorney general Andrew P. Miller of Alexandria -- will only help, say his supporters.

So, too, will his Virginia pedigree. Russell, who was born in Richmond, earned his undergraduate degree when he was 19 and his law degree at 22, both from the University of Virginia where he was president of the Jefferson Society, a debating club. His post-Charlottesville credentials read like an entry from the Richmond ""Who's Who": Episcopal vestryman, Navy veteran, tennis buff and member of the Annapolis Yacht Club.

Russell's critics say that although he is extraordinarily bright and personally charming off the bench, he lacks understanding of, or compassion for, those he judges. Others say he tends to mete out particularly harsh sentences in cases involving drugs or violence and is considerably more lenient in white-collar cases.

"Russell's view is that the prosecution gets what it wants. He relies on jail too much as the answer when it's not," observes Marvin Miller, a Northern Virginia attorney who regularly represents drug defendants.

Because Virginia Circuit Court judges rarely are reversed by the State Supreme Court, lower court judges like Russell have a power unequalled by judges in other states. Chan Kendrick, a lawyer with the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that makes the role of a state trial judge in Virginia particularly crucial.

"Virginia judges send many more people to jail than is necessary for much longer than necessary," Kendrick says. "There's a tremendous respect for the traditional law-and-order view in this state, but these judges don't consider what these people are going to be like when they come out."

Russell, one of the few Virginia judges who routinely tours the state prisons, disagrees. He says he doesn't like sending people to the prisons, which, in his view, are "warehouses" that rarely rehabilitate anyone.

"But at least they're not out there in the dark alleys," says Russell, who was one of Virginia's most prominent highway condemnation lawyers before his appointment to the Circuit Court in 1967.

Russell says he finds child custody cases particularly troublesome.

"I find it much more difficult to take a child away from one parent in a custody case than to send someone to the penitentiary," he says. "Custody cases tear me up; I find it hard to play King Solomon and do the right thing."

But some lawyers are more concerned about Russell's record in criminal cases.

"He's the only judge who makes me nervous because he loves to give maximum sentences," said one veteran criminal lawyer in Arlington who requested anonymity. "He has fundamentalist Protestant views, that a person who does something wrong should be punished severely. He just will not accept the fact that some people commit crimes because they're sick."

Russell partly agrees with that assessment. "By and large that defense is advanced when a lawyer can't think of anything else," he says. "I'm convinced that there really is something to the theory that jail is a deterrent. What is necessary is that the community see that people are punished surely and swiftly, but not necessarily severely."