A Virginia appeals court panel reversed the conviction yesterday of former American University official William (Bull) Evans-Smith in the strangulation of his wife at the couple's Loudoun County estate.

The three-judge panel concluded that the lower court erred in admitting hearsay evidence and did not properly handle a juror misconduct issue. The 28-page opinion remanded the case to Loudoun County Circuit Court. Loudoun prosecutor William T. Burch said he had not yet decided whether to retry it.

Burch added that he had not seen a copy of the decision and therefore could not elaborate. "Obviously, I'm disappointed," he said.

Defense attorney David Moyes had not seen the opinion, either. "We want to be very careful about what we say at this point because we understand it is a reversal, and not a dismissal. We'd prefer the latter," he said.

Evans-Smith, the former director of American University's Foreign Area Studies program and a man described by friends as an enthusiastic fox hunter, has been free on a $100,000 property bond since his highly publicized trial in August 1985.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday. Said Moyes: "He has been through a lot, and I would say there's a ways to go. Let's put it this way: he sure is glad to see that we've gotten a decision."

The partially clothed body of Barbara Evans-Smith, 64, was found sprawled on her bedroom floor at the couple's meticulously kept $367,000 Crooked Run Farm in rural Hamilton on April 15, 1985. A pair of pantyhose had been wrapped three times around her neck.

Commonwealth's Attorney Burch maintained in court that Evans-Smith had strangled his wife of 43 years in the kitchen, dragged her body upstairs, then attempted to make it appear as though a rape and burglary had occurred.

The prosecution argued that Evans-Smith, a retired Army colonel, was frustrated with his work and over the breakup of an 11-year affair with a coworker.

Evans-Smith, who spent 5 1/2 hours on the witness stand, denied his involvement, and testified before a packed courtroom that his wife was alive when he left for his job in Washington.

After deliberating for five days, a Loudoun jury found Evans-Smith guilty, and Judge Carleton Penn sentenced him to five years in prison, the minimum for second-degree murder.

In appealing the verdict, Evans-Smith's attorneys complained that the prosecution should not have been allowed to introduce certain observations aimed at demonstrating that Barbara Evans-Smith feared her husband.

The prosecutors argued that they had attempted to prove motive and intent by showing that the victim was aware of a change in her husband's personality, and that she was scared by his hostile manner.

The state also argued that such testimony was necessary to refute the defense's contention that the Evans-Smith marriage was harmonious.

The appeals panel -- Chief Judge Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. and Judges Charles H. Duff and William H. Hodges -- concluded that the hearsay evidence should not have been admitted for several reasons. Portions of the evidence, they said, were prejudicial, inflammatory and immaterial.

Defense lawyers appealing the case also had argued that jurors were permitted to reach a verdict using extraneous evidence not admitted at the trial.

Four days after the trial ended, juror Christine Nelson disclosed to defense lawyers that another juror had consulted an almanac outside of the jury room and had discussed his findings with other jurors during the deliberations.

According to Nelson, the juror had checked the time of sunrise on April 15 to determine whether Evans-Smith was telling the truth. The almanac revealed that the sun had already risen at the time Evans-Smith testified he turned on his car headlights and had noticed a suspicious-looking van in the reflected beam of light.

The commonwealth had argued that the almanac information was not "offensive" because it was true, among other reasons.

Again, the appeals panel disagreed, stating that it is impossible to determine the truth of such information without presenting it in open court and subjecting it to cross-examination.

The appellate judges found that the trial court erred in not pursuing the almanac incident and in not attempting to determine whether the almanac influenced the trial's outcome.

"The very essence of Evans-Smith's case was his credibility and veracity. For this reason, we believe that it was absolutely essential that {Evans-Smith} be given an opportunity to confront and cross-examine this evidence against him," the judges wrote.