Charles S. Robb was on his way home from a conference in Oklahoma where he and his fellow governors had debated the balanced budget amendment and the best way to divide dollars from Washington.

These were modern issues, well-suited to Robb's deliberate style, conforming to his view of politics as a series of tidy choices, nonidealogical and unemotional.

What awaited him in Richmond was something else altogether, a melodrama of the sort Chuck Robb would probably never pay $4 to see in a movie house. It had it all: tense courtroom battles, outraged civil libertarians, last-minute rushes to file appropriate appeals. Throughout, a nine-man death squad stood by, waiting to carry out the first execution in Virginia in two decades.

Even the crowd in front of the Capitol on that hot, humid night last week looked as if it had been hired for a Grade B movie. State troopers, their eyes shaded by broad-brimmed hats, lounged in the doorways. A crowd of reporters nearby peered through the darkness for the first sign that the governor had returned.

It was a scene Robb chose to avoid, perhaps sensing he was miscast in the role of flamboyant Southern governor. Instead, he stuck to his own script. Ducking reporters, Robb retreated to his office, waiting until the execution had been carried out before letting an aide issue a prepared statement.

Robb came home last Tuesday to a choice of life and death--a choice that, in the end, only he and a convicted murderer could make. By 10:30 that night, the courts had ruled. If Frank Coppola, a 38-year-old ex-policeman convicted four years ago in the brutal death of a Newport News woman, wanted to die in the electric chair, only the governor could stop him. It was that simple and that dramatic.

The two men had staked out their positions early on. Last spring, Coppola began it all by deciding to drop his appeals and ask for death, even as he maintained his innocence.

As a candidate last year, Robb said he supported Virginia's death penalty, revised to conform to new constitutional standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court. And when he was faced with an actual execution, he stood by his conviction, saying he would intervene only if he could find fault with the way the law had been applied.

His position put Robb beyond the reach of appeals to morality and emotion. But according to his aides, it did not save the governor from the pain of his own decision. They say he meant it when, in his prepared statement, he called it the "most difficult and emotionally draining" decision in his eight months as governor.

But if that was true, it was obvious to few other people. Participants at the governors' conference in Oklahoma said Robb was always calm, never distracted. His answers to questions about the pending execution were carefully controlled, always hewing to the narrow legal dimensions.

While others continued to debate the ethics of capital punishment, Robb, in his comments, seemed to indicate he no longer considered moral questions to be an issue.

Some of those who hold the opposite view applauded Robb for not trying to duck the consequences of his beliefs.

"He was very much up-front with the people in announcing his position in the campaign and he has been thoroughly consistent since then," said state Sen. Joseph Gartlan (D-Fairfax), who has been just as consistent in opposing the death penalty.

Robb's logic was impeccable -- and impregnable, except for the slim hope he would find a legal reason at least to delay the execution.

That hope blossomed when a federal appeals court found reason to grant a stay. Surely, thought those who had been fighting the execution, a ruling by a well-respected appellate judge, not known for his liberal leanings, would be excuse enough for Robb and the state to hold up until every legal question had been satisfied.

But acting with little time to spare, Robb decided to appeal, trusting that the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn that last legal obstacle and uphold Robb's own view that the execution was perfectly legal. It was a decision made without hesitation and when the high court ruled, it ruled in Robb's favor, justifying his swift and sure reaction -- at least on legal grounds.