A federal judge yesterday granted a last-ditch request from former WorldCom Inc. leader Bernard J. Ebbers to delay his 25-year prison sentence while he appeals his fraud and false statements conviction.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones gives Ebbers, 64, a reprieve of at least six months. He had been ordered to report to prison Oct. 12 to serve what amounts to a life sentence. Prison officials said they will send Ebbers to a medium-security facility in Oakdale, La., as opposed to a low-security prison in Yazoo City, Miss., closer to his family and friends.

Defense lawyers Reid H. Weingarten and Brian M. Heberlig have said it is "virtually unprecedented" for a first-time, white-collar offender to serve time in such a harsh locale.

They have signaled they will appeal their client's March conviction by arguing that the judge gave improper jury instructions about what Ebbers knew or avoided knowing about the largest accounting fraud in history. WorldCom has since emerged from bankruptcy protection as Ashburn-based MCI Inc.

In a four-page order, the judge ruled that Ebbers was not likely to flee in the course of his appeal and that his lawyers had raised a substantial question that could result in a reversal of the conviction or a new trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit could hear oral arguments in the case as early as mid-December in New York. Under federal rules, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence -- making Ebbers eligible for release only after more than two decades.

Bernard J. Ebbers, sentenced to 25 years, is appealing his fraud conviction.