The Virginia Attorney General's Office asked a federal appeals court yesterday to prohibit a hearing on whether murderer Wilbert Lee Evans's death sentence should be reduced to life in prison.

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. in Richmond postponed Wednesday's scheduled execution of Evans and said he will hold a hearing to determine if a jury erred when it sentenced Evans to die in the electric chair.

Advocates for Evans have argued that his sentence should be changed because he helped avert violence during an escape attempt by fellow inmates, but the state argued in its appeal that Merhige unjustly usurped the right of Virginia juries to sentence convicted criminals.

"Until last Saturday, Virginia jurors decided whether capital murderers should receive the death penalty and Virginia governors decided whether such sentences should be commuted," Senior Assistant Attorney General Donald R. Curry wrote in his appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Evans was convicted of killing deputy William Gene Truesdale in 1981 during an escape attempt at Alexandria's Old Town jail. Having been found guilty of capital murder because his victim was a law enforcement official, Evans was sentenced to death because the Alexandria Circuit Court jury ruled that he presented a continuing danger.

Evans's supporters have argued that Evans proved the jury's assessment was incorrect in 1984 when he came to the aid of 14 hostages during a death row uprising at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

Merhige ruled Saturday that Evans's supporters had presented enough compelling evidence, including affidavits from hostages who said Evans saved them from harm, to warrant a hearing on whether Evans's death sentence can be reconsidered because of events that occurred after sentencing.

Mark D. Cahn, one of Evans's attorneys, said he requested the hearing "to ensure that a miscarriage of justice doesn't take place . . . . The stakes are extremely high."

Merhige has not yet scheduled a hearing. A three-judge panel of the appellate court is scheduled to review Merhige's order this morning and could rule this afternoon.