Zita Truesdale is sickened that Wilbert Lee Evans, the man who murdered her husband in 1981, has become a symbol of good.

Evans has been scheduled to die in the electric chair for killing Deputy William Gene Truesdale during a failed attempt to escape from the Alexandria jail. But lawyers, civil rights activists and even former corrections officials have waged a recent campaign on his behalf, saying Evans's heroic deeds saved a group of hostages during a prison uprising six years ago.

"I don't want this man, whether he lives or dies, to be a hero. He is not a hero. He is not a martyr in our lives," said Truesdale. "People now say he saved lives. If he'd saved that life back in 1981, he wouldn't be in the position he's in today."

Evans, a 44-year-old native of Raleigh, N.C., received a crucial break in his case this past weekend. Just four days before Evans's Wednesday execution date, U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold a hearing on whether Evans's sentence should be reduced. The judge said it would be wrong to execute anyone who performs "selfless and heroic acts" after he has been sentenced to death.

Merhige largely agreed with Evans's supporters that Evans helped quell a 1984 death row uprising at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, where armed inmates had taken 12 guards and two nurses hostage.

Citing affidavits filed by hostages who said Evans saved them from almost certain harm, Merhige agreed to hold a hearing in the next few days to consider whether Evans's death sentence should be reduced to life in prison. The state said it would appeal Merhige's decision.

Jonathan Shapiro, who has represented Evans for eight years, applauded the surprise ruling, saying Evans deserves every possible opportunity to prove that he is not the unthinking villain some people believe him to be.

"He is perceived by a number of people who have known him and worked with him as caring and warm. I guess that may seem odd to use such adjectives for a guy on death row, but that's how they felt," Shapiro said.

Evans describes himself as neither hero nor villain, having helped the Mecklenburg hostages "because it was the right thing to do." He is, he said in a death row interview in Richmond, a simple man who dreamed of an ordinary existence but failed to achieve it.

"The only thing I ever wanted to do was work, get married, have kids, do the right things," Evans said.

Evans was sentenced to death March 4, 1984, having been convicted of capital murder because his victim was a law enforcement officer.

In Virginia, jurors can impose a death sentence when they believe a capital crime is "vile and vicious" or when they believe the criminal remains a danger to society. An Alexandria Circuit Court jury concluded that Evans presented such a threat.

Evans's attorneys will try to convince Merhige in the upcoming hearing that the jury's prediction was proved wrong and consequently invalidated when Evans helped the hostages.

The state, which has argued that the sentence cannot be modified by events that took place after sentencing, will be allowed to try to denigrate Evans's actions during the Mecklenburg uprising and to present any evidence that Evans has proved to be a danger since he was sentenced.

Disagreements over Evans's actions and motives in the case reach back to Jan. 27, 1981, the day Deputy Truesdale was shot to death with his own gun.

According to testimony during Evans's trial in Alexandria Circuit Court, Evans appeared at an extradition hearing that afternoon against a North Carolina man facing murder charges.

Evans, in custody himself for an assault conviction in Raleigh, had been led by Truesdale out of a van and up a stairway toward the jailhouse entrance when he saw an open gate leading to the street. He reached for Truesdale's gun, shot the guard in the ensuing struggle and led officers on a wild eight-block chase through office buildings and across busy streets, according to law enforcement officials.

Evans maintains that the shooting was an accident that grew out of a spontaneous impulse to bolt for the open gate. "I ended up with a hold of the gun and we were tussling. I was trying to shoot off the handcuffs" when the gun discharged and Truesdale was hit in the side, Evans said.

Greg Rippey, a former Alexandria police officer, said Evans acted in cold blood and would have killed a second time that day if the gun he took from Truesdale had not misfired.

Rippey said this week that he and another officer pursued Evans, catching up to him when he reached Washington Street. "Evans stopped in the street, turned, pointed the gun into {the other officer's} face and pulled the trigger. Both of us heard a click."

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he fully intended to kill the officer in the middle of Washington Street," Rippey said. "That would have made two officers in the same day, and 'accidentally' isn't going to fly."

Joseph N. Soos, a former sheriff's department employee who was the first to reach Truesdale after the shooting, said he determined through an internal investigation and interviews with other inmates that Evans planned all along to attempt an escape.

"He was hoping to get into the courthouse, where his handcuffs were going to be taken off, and he was going to take a run and jump out the window," Soos said.

Doubters also question Evans's motivation in the Mecklenburg incident, though no one disputes that he defied knife-wielding inmates when he came to the aid of the hostages.

Zita Truesdale insists that Evans rescued the hostages because he thought he might reap personal gain. "That was his ploy, to save the people to help save himself: 'If I save these people, maybe on down the road they will save me,' " Truesdale said.

Evans said he stood quietly against a wall that evening, watching the escape plan of the six inmates unfold and thinking that it was destined to fail. Though he did not immediately help guards who were jumped and bound, he said he felt compelled to act when inmates stripped a nurse, tied her to a bed frame and began to fondle her.

Evans said that "for me to stand there and allow a woman to get raped" would have made him as guilty of that crime as the other inmates.

He said he reasoned with the inmates, finally convincing them that it would be tougher to negotiate their release if they had harmed the hostages. "I told the inmates, 'Don't try to hurt someone to prove a point. Just talk it through,' " said Evans.

Paul Keve, a former corrections official and a criminology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes Evans should benefit from his actions regardless of his motives.

"You could imagine that he was just playing a game, but if a life was saved, I don't care. A life saved is a life saved," Keve said at a news conference called by Evans's supporters in Richmond last week.

Evans's supporters say that they too are simply trying to apply reason to an emotional and deadly set of circumstances. Shapiro and others, including a former administrator for the Virginia Department of Corrections, argue that rewarding Evans's good deed with a reduced sentence would send a strong and positive signal to other inmates.

Richard R. Ruscak, an Alexandria sheriff's department supervisor who remembers Truesdale as a model of compassion, flatly rejects the notion. Ruscak said it is common knowledge that "there are already incentives for people to act on their best behavior" and that such people are rewarded with early parole.

Truesdale fears Wilder might send a more disturbing kind of message if he commutes Evans's sentence: "It's like saying to others, 'Go out and kill an officer.' "

Evans said he is spending his time now writing poems and songs to keep his growing fear of death at bay. If he fails in life to convince people he is a man of honor, he said, he hopes his poems carry that message after he is gone.