The first hint that convicted murderer Frank J. Coppola would die -- on schedule -- in Virginia's electric chair Tuesday night came to Washington lawyer Russell F. Canan from a source inside the state penitentiary. Canan knew that the "death squad" -- the men who would take Coppola to the execution chamber -- would be anonymous. His source said that Coppola's prison guards had just removed their nametags.

Two minutes later, at 10:25 p.m., a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court telephoned Canan in Richmond and told him that five of the justices had lifted a stay of execution that he and other civil liberties lawyers had won hours earlier.

As Coppola was being prepared for his death, Canan and three lawyers with the Death Penalty Defense Fund in Washington, George Kendall, Stephen Bright, and William Walsh, began a final, desperate appeal to keep him alive.

Canan said he asked the clerk if the justices had seen his opposition papers -- dictated from Richmond -- which had not reached the court until 10:22 p.m. Canan said he was told they had "arrived contemporaneously with the court's order." When he asked to make a verbal motion for a stay of execution until those papers could be read, Canan said the clerk replied that such applications had to be in writing and there could be no exceptions.

Canan immediately called his law office on 16th Street NW and dispatched Bright, Kendall and Walsh to the court. Canan called Western Union and sent a telegram to the justices, asking for a delay. He said Western Union told him they couldn't be sure it would arrive in time.

As the three lawyers rushed by car across town to the court, Bright hand-wrote a motion for stay of execution, delivered to a deputy clerk at 10:55 p.m. It was logged at the court 10 minutes later.

Meanwhile, Canan said he called the clerk's office again and asked if any justices were in the building and if they would wait for the motion. The clerk would not say.

At about 11:30 p.m., in the marble hallway outside the court clerk's office, Kendall, still waiting for word from the justices, learned from news reporters that Coppola was dead. "All right," he said quietly.

"We never heard from the court . . . ," Canan said later.

The Supreme Court's spokesman said late last week that there was an attempt to circulate Canan's petition for a stay, until the clerk learned on the radio that Coppola had been pronounced dead.