A convicted murderer who had won the right to a new trial after serving 21 years of a life sentence was declared a free man yesterday after admitting that the State of Maryland had enough evidence to convict him again.

James Branch Wise, 44, entered an Alford plea in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday morning, meaning that he did not confess to the crime but conceded that the state could win a guilty plea from a jury.

Wise, who continues to maintain that he is not guilty, expressed mixed feelings yesterday, saying that "it's good to be free" but that "I feel as if I shouldn't have to bargain for my freedom. I wanted to be completely vindicated."

His plea ends one of Maryland's longest and most controversial murder cases, one in which a Howard County Circuit Court judge agreed two years ago to grant Wise a new trial. The judge ruled that the case's original prosecutor -- Alfred T. Truitt Jr., now a Wicomico County Circuit Court judge -- had failed to disclose important evidence to the defense.

The state fought the decision to grant a new trial, but a higher court upheld the ruling in January.

After Wise entered his plea yesterday, another Howard judge, Cornelius Sybert Jr., sentenced him to life in prison with all of the time suspended except the 21 years served, making the defendant a free man.

Wise has been out of prison since posting a $25,000 bond in April. He said he celebrated his legal freedom by having a "good meal" in a Baltimore restaurant and by "going out with a nice young woman" last night.

Wise's attorney, Greta Van Susteren, said she was pleased with the case's outcome. "It was a deal that no innocent man could pass up," she said. "It was a guarantee right out the door. What more can you want?"

Wise was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Tegid Jones, 62, of Pennsylvania, who had stopped at a Salisbury gas station as he returned from vacation in Florida in November 1967. Jones, who was shot in the chest, was found dead in the gas station bathroom.

Wise was tried two years later in Howard County, after his lawyers argued he could not get a fair trial in Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located.

In 1977, Wise began to petition for a new trial on the grounds that Truitt had not revealed to the defense that the prosecution had struck a deal with chief prosecution witness William Mack, who also was accused of the murder. Mack was not tried.

Mack testified that Wise told him he had killed Jones during a robbery at the gas station. And a Salisbury taxi driver testified that he dropped off Mack and Wise at a shopping center near the station shortly before the murder. But according to a federal court, only Mack's testimony directly linked Wise to the murder.

After at least eight petitions to federal and state courts, Wise was granted a new trial in 1988 by Howard County Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas Nissel, who ruled that Truitt had committed an "egregious" error by not revealing the state's agreement with Mack.

Truitt, who has strenously asserted that he did make the disclosure, said yesterday he feels vindicated by Wise's Alford plea because it is legally considered a conviction.

Van Susteren called Truitt's reaction "outrageous," adding, "If I were Mr. Truitt, I'd be ashamed of myself. Mr. Truitt did something deceitful in 1968, something that cost a man 22 years of his life. His deceit is on the record."

Van Susteren, one of at least four lawyers who have represented Wise in the case, said the Wicomico State's Attorney's Office approached her about a month ago to offer Wise the chance to go free if he admitted guilt.

Wise said he refused the offer because he wanted to be "completely vindicated."

The Wicomico State's Attorney's Office then offered Wise the chance to enter an Alford plea, which Wise said he accepted reluctantly. "I did it for one reason," he said. "That was the fear of me being found guilty and sent back to prison. They've already had 22 years of my life." Wise's new trial had been set to begin Dec. 12.

Davis R. Ruark, Wicomico County state's attorney, said yesterday that he accepted the Alford plea because "when you're dealing with a 22-year-old case, there are some inherent problems you face" in a retrial. One of the main problems, Ruark said, was the viability of state's witnesses. "Sometimes memories fade," he said.Staff writer Saundra Torry contributed to this report.