Closing the final curtain on the legal drama of Marvin Mandel, a federal judge today reduced the former Maryland governor's prison sentence from four years to three for his cimes of corruption.

In the same courthouse where he was convicted on Aug. 23, 1977, Mandel rose and quietly told U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Taylor: "Two-and-a-half years ago, my life ended. . . . No prison with walls can be tougher than the prison we've been in already."

Taylor rejected Mandel's request that his entire sentence be suspended and the reduction the judge granted will have little effect on Mandel's parole date. Once imprisoned on May 14, Mandel technically will be eligible for parole immediately -- under a first-offender rule -- but in practice he must serve at least 120 days before a parole would be considered.

Today at the court hearing, there were no apologies and no entreaties for mercy from the once-powerful governor whose fall began nearly five years ago with a federal indictment.

Mandel and the five men convicted with him on mail fraud and racketeering charges were together again for the first time since their sentencing by Taylor on Oct. 7, 1977. And from the other five -- Irvin Kovens, W. Dale Hess, Harry Rodgers III, William Rodgers and Ernest Cory Jr. -- there were words of contrition and pleas for mercy.

Indeed, after listening to those pleas, Taylor suspended the 18-month sentence of Cory, a stoop-shouldered Laurel attorney who had always seemed the odd man out among the prominent and welathy defendants.

He reduced from four years to three the sentences of Kovens, Hess and Harry Rodgers. He cut nearly eight months from the 20-month sentence of William Rodgers, and agreed to recommend that he serve his sentence in a community corrections facility in Baltimore.

Obviously saddened by his task, the diminutive, 80-year-old Taylor peered at the defendants and told them, "This court feels that it would like to put . . . all of these men on probation. Each one of these men has many good qualities. Each one of these men has made an eminent success in business. Each one of these men has a family.

"But the court has a duty to perform. In light of these convictions, it was this court's duty to pronounce the sentence that it did pronounce, and to amend the sentence as it did today."

The previous eminence of the defendants in the courtroom today was dramatized by the character witnesses called on behalf of Kovens, once a millionaire political godfather to Mandel and other prominent Baltimore officeholders.

Former Maryland attorney general Francis B. Burch and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, one of Kovens' political proteges, both took the witness stand to praise Kovens as a man who, despite his immense political influence, had never asked them to do anything "out of the way" or improper."

Both also had accolades for Mandel whom Burch praised as "the most politically wise man . . . the most sagacious politician I have ever met."

But the drastic changes the five-year legal battle had worked on these men was evident, too, in the courtroom today.

Kovens, once a political kingmaker and a silver-haired man of commanding presence, was reduced to a sunken man of 61 pleading for a suspended sentence because of a severe heart condition.

Two years ago, Kovens was angry and vicious on the day of sentencing, confronting the chief prosecutor with personal accusations.

Today, he took the stand and meekly told Judge Taylor: "I'm sorry for everything that has happened."

The last five years have seen the six defendents convicted, then apparently cleared by an appeals court panel. Later, their convictions were reinstated by a tie vote of a full appeals court. Finally, last month the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review their case.

Mandel's attorney, Arnold Weiner, called the process an "unrelenting nightmare" and said that Mandel's "endurance was tested and indeed broken in this extraordinary series of events."

Most of the defendants argued that it was the length of the appeals process -- 2 1/2 years -- that justified a reduction in their sentences.

But U.S. Attorney Russell T. Baker Jr. -- in opposing the requests of Mandel and three others -- argued that the sentences were "right" and "just" and that reducing them would enhance "the widespread cynical view that there are two systems of justice . . . one for the wealthy and prominent and one for ordinary citizens." Baker had favored the reduction requests of Cory and William Rodgers.

When it was all over today, Mandel left the courtroom, with his wife Jeanne's arm protectively around his shoulders.

"It's been a very difficult time," the stoical Mandel said. "I'm glad the whole thing came to a conclusion. I have no further comment."

Moments later, a white Lincoln Continental sped away from the courthouse with Mandel in the back seat giving a slight wave of his hand.