Virginia's two biggest law firms have agreed to represent death row inmate Syvasky L. Poyner, who received five death sentences for a 1984 murder spree and had been unable to find a lawyer for his appeals.

Robert H. Patterson Jr., president of the Virginia State Bar and a partner in the Richmond firm of McGuire, Woods and Battle, said today that Poyner will be represented by lawyers from his firm and from the Hunton & Williams law firm of Richmond.

Patterson said the firms took the case at the request of Marie Deans, executive director of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. The firms will not be paid for their work because Poyner is unable to pay for a lawyer, he said.

Poyner, 29, of Newport News was sentenced to death last year for an 11-day murder spree in which five Peninsula women were shot to death during robberies. The victims included two Williamsburg motel employes, two Hampton businesswomen and a Newport News ice cream store clerk.

Deans said more than 100 lawyers turned down her plea to handle appeals for Poyner, who has more death sentences than any of Virginia's other 25 death row inmates.

"You talk to an attorney about it. He says, 'Well, Marie, if I get a reversal, he's still going to die unless the other attorneys are doing as good a job as I am,' " she said.

Poyner's case is more complicated than those of other death-row inmates because he was convicted in three courts and received five death sentences, she said.

In another case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed today the scheduled Sept. 3 execution of convicted killer Michael Marnell Smith, the senior resident on Virginia's death row.

The court granted the temporary reprieve for Smith -- convicted of the May 1977 rape and murder of a York County woman -- so his attorney, Lloyd Snook III of Charlottesville, could appeal to the nation's high court.

Snook earlier said he was confident the appeals court would issue the stay.

Smith, 39, was convicted by a Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court jury in December 1977 of raping and killing Audrey Jean Weiler, 36.

The stay was issued until Sept. 24, allowing Snook time to prepare further appeals. This will give Snook time to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider psychiatric evidence introduced at Smith's December 1977 trial.

Snook argues the court should not have allowed testimony by a psychiatrist hired by the defense. The psychiatrist, under examination by the prosecution and Smith's court-appointed attorneys, detailed Smith's confession of an earlier sexual attack.

Patterson said that in the Poyner case, "Our involvement is strictly in the matter of seeing to it that the man has counsel and in no way involves our personal view on the death penalty, the right or wrong of it. That's a matter for the legislature to decide. He's entitled to counsel. He hasn't been able to get one."

Hunton & Williams, with 284 lawyers, is the largest law firm in Virginia. McGuire, Woods and Battle has about 200 lawyers, making it the second biggest firm.

Patterson said the firms handle primarily civil cases, but often take pro bono work, cases in which the client cannot afford counsel.

The Virginia Supreme Court upheld Poyner's death sentences last April. While pursuing that automatic appeal, he was entitled to a court-appointed lawyer.

But in Virginia, death row inmates must find their own attorneys after that initial appeal.

Of the 37 states with death penalty laws on the books, 28 provide for court-appointed attorneys throughout the appeal process, Deans said.

Death sentence appeals can take six to eight years and cost an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 in legal fees if lawyers are paid, she said.

"Too many single practitioners and firms with two lawyers are doing these cases. They have no resources," she said.

On Virginia's death row, four inmates are without attorneys, she said.

Before the Richmond law firms agreed to handle his case, Poyner had filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court with the help of another death row inmate, she said.