A three-judge panel of the Prince William County Circuit Court left the Town of Haymarket without a mayor yesterday by nullifying the May 1 mayoral election.

Although Terri R. Freeborn emerged from the balloting with 24 votes to the 20 cast for Richard G. Bird, the court ruled that Freeborn, the incumbent mayor, had effectively withdrawn her candidacy in the month before the election.

Freeborn, 38, had announced her withdrawal in early April, citing personal reasons. Her name remained on the ballot because neither she nor the Town Council chose to pay $168 to reprint new ballots. Despite her announcement, she said before the balloting that she would accept the office if elected.

Bird, a council member, contested the election result in court, arguing that Freeborn was not a legitimate candidate and that voters were confused by the presence of two names on the ballot.

"I think this is a victory because it says the election results are skewed and unreliable," Bird's attorney, Steven Woodside, said.

Freeborn felt differently, declaring: "I don't feel this was justice . . . . The people of the town spoke very clearly about what they wanted."

The three-judge panel stopped short of ordering a special election, leaving the town to resolve the matter.

Woodside said he thought the decision will probably lie with the Town Council. "The council now has the authority to appoint whomever they wish. They may decide Terri Freeborn. They may decide Richard Bird."

The court's decision, announced by Circuit Judge H. Selwyn Smith, said the case calls for state legislation. Smith said the Virginia General Assembly "may well follow" the example of Kentucky, where a court case led to legislation requiring the removal of withdrawn candidates' names from ballots and/or the posting of notices of their withdrawal.