Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman has failed in his latest attempt to force the return to prison of three men granted early release in a politically controversial 1978 drug smuggling case.

Coleman, a Republican who was defeated last month in his bid for the governorship, had made his effort to have the men jailed part of his campaign, claiming it demonstrated that he, rather than Democrat Charles S. Robb, was tough on drug offenders.

Cumberland County Circuit Court Judge John R. Snoddy Jr., in an order made public Monday, rejected a motion filed by Coleman requesting that the judge reverse his year-old decision freeing the defendants.

An aide to Coleman, who argued a similar motion without success before the Virginia Supreme Court in September, said yesterday Coleman would have no comment until he had read Snoddy's decision.

Despite the latest setback, Coleman spokesman Ben Ragsdale said the attorney general, who will leave office Jan. 16, "feels the system of justice has been short-circuited and he's determined to see some remedial action is taken."

An official in the attorney general's office said Coleman's options include an appeal of Snoddy's order or seeking a writ from the state Supreme Court that would vacate the judge's order.

"I guess it's Marshall's last hurrah before he goes back to the private practice of law," said Richmond attorney Michael Morchower, one of several defense lawyers involved in the case. "It's a grandstand play."

Morchower said it was unlikely any further action by Coleman in the case would be resolved before Coleman's successor takes office.

Coleman boasted during the campaign that he had won his argument before the Virginia Supreme Court after the court forbade Snoddy to free from prison two other smugglers convicted in the Cumberland case.

That led to Robb radio ads charging that assistants in Coleman's office actually had helped defense lawyers for the three freed prisoners by advising them on how to speed their clients' release from prison once Snoddy's order had been issued.

A Robb aide yesterday repeated criticism by the Supreme Court that Coleman had "misconstrued" his own argument before the court. "Chuck said during the campaign he had no objection at all to drug smugglers staying in jail," said spokesman George Stoddart.

The Robb transition office apparently has yet to decide whether to continue efforts to imprison the three men, Stoddart said.

The case grew out of a drug raid in rural Cumberland County, about 30 miles west of Richmond, that netted 13,400 pounds of marijuana and $1.7 million in cash in what authorities called the biggest narcotics bust in Virginia history.

Five defendants later pleaded guilty and received lengthy prison sentences from Snoddy. The judge subsequently ordered three of the five released months after they had entered the state prison system, an action Coleman claimed exceeded Snoddy's authority.