SALISBURY, MD. -- He would wait until lights out, when his fellow inmates were quiet and he could concentrate. Then James Branch Wise would lie on the floor of his dingy cell, poke his arms through the bars and spread out his papers in the corridor.

Using dim passageway lights to see, he would shift through pages and pages of notes as he prepared appeal petitions in his elegant, slanted cursive.

Sometimes, he said, the guards would walk by and kick his papers about. He couldn't complain because his arms weren't supposed to be sticking out of his cell.

"It was rough," Wise said in a recent interview here. "Sometimes I would get frustrated and I would say the hell with it, excuse my expression. I would think it's not worth my time. But something in the back of my mind said, 'Don't give up.' "

Wise, prisoner No. 107101, became a free man last month after spending 21 years in prison for a murder he maintains he didn't commit. "I didn't do anything. When they arrested me, the first thing I thought was that someone's trying to set me up," he said.

He was convicted of fatally shooting a traveler who had stopped at a Salisbury gas station. Wise, who was then 21, says he was playing cards at a taxi stand when the killing occurred.

He won the right to a retrial after an appeals court ruled that the prosecutor had withheld critical information from the defense.

On Nov. 27, two weeks before his scheduled retrial, Wise's attorney entered an Alford plea in Howard County Circuit Court. That plea means Wise did not admit guilt but conceded that the state probably had sufficient evidence to convict him.

Howard County Circuit Court Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr. sentenced Wise to life in prison and suspended all but the 21 years already served. That left Wise, 44, who had been free on bail since April, to continue his slow, painful climb back into the outside world. Not only must he relearn the basics of everyday living, such as how to drive a car and manage money, he also must adjust to the ways his world has changed since the 1960s, and must struggle to overcome his bitterness.

"I had to bargain for my freedom, and I don't think that's right. I agreed to the Alford plea because I didn't want to take the chance on another jury making a mistake," Wise said. "But if I had to do it again, I would have gone all the way with the trial. They would have had to convict me all over again."

Wise used to sport bold, wide shoulders that topped off his lean six-foot frame. He's still slim, but his shoulders are stooped, he wears glasses, he's deaf in one ear, and gray hairs peek from beneath an ever-present tam.

"Bitter? You'd better believe I'm bitter," he said. "They can't give me those . . . years back."

"I feel like I've been castrated, you know what I mean?" Wise said. "I wanted a nice wife, a son and a daughter. My own house, not someplace to rent. But I don't think I'll get anywhere near that. There's got to be some big changes."

Wise's Alford plea closed the book on Case 4273, which began in November 1967, when Pennsylvanian Tegid Jones, 62, stopped at a Salisbury service station on his way home from a Florida vacation and was shot to death in the restroom. Two days later, Wise was arrested at a cab stand, where he was playing cards and watching television with the drivers.

Wise hadn't been an angel. In 1965, he had served a year for breaking and entering. He then served 18 months for destruction of personal property and had been out of prison about eight weeks when he was arrested in Jones's slaying.

Because of publicity and what Wise calls "racial overtones," the trial was moved from Wicomico County to Howard County.

During the two-day trial, the most damaging evidence against Wise came from William Mack, who also was charged in Jones's death. Mack testified that he had given Wise a gun the afternoon of the killing and that when Wise returned it, he said he had killed a man with it during a robbery. No other testimony placed Wise at the scene of the crime.

The jury found Wise guilty. And he was sentenced to life in prison.

Seven years after Wise entered Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore, a fellow inmate asked him about Mack. "How come he didn't get any time? Did he make a deal?"

Wise said no, Mack hadn't made a deal.

"Well, if he didn't make a deal," the inmate asked, "why wasn't he brought to trial like you?"

After that exchange, Wise began to file petitions alleging that prosecutors had withheld evidence by not disclosing that the state had made a deal with Mack. Courts repeatedly dismissed his claims because Wise had not made that allegation in earlier petitions.

Alfred Truitt Jr., now a Wicomico County judge, said that as the prosecutor in Wise's case, he had in fact struck a deal in exchange for Mack's testimony. However, he vehemently denied that he had covered up the agreement. He said that he had had an "open file" policy and that the agreement was there, if the defense attorney had bothered to look. Nevertheless, during the first years that Wise was filing his petitions, the agreement couldn't be found.

In 1985, Wise was granted an evidentiary hearing in federal court. By then, Wise's attorneys had obtained the agreement. Mack's 1969 attorney said he had found it in March 1985 in his office safe.

The federal court sent the case back to the state court. And in 1988, Howard County Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas Nissel granted Wise a new trial, contending that the state had made an "egregious" error in not disclosing the Mack agreement to Wise's attorney.

Truitt insists "everyone in the courtroom knew" about the deal with Mack. "That's why I was so shocked when {the defense attorney} didn't ask him about that on cross-examination," Truitt said. "Why he didn't ask it, I don't know. I wish he had. If he had, we wouldn't be here dealing with this today.

"What's really concerning me," Truitt said, "is I spent about 38 years building a reputation that was unsullied. This thing has been blown completely out of kilter."

Davis Ruark, state's attorney for Wicomico County, said Truitt has a reputation as a judge "who has bent over backwards to be fair to defendants . . . . When you're in his courtroom, you know exactly where he stands. I have never known him to be anything less than perfectly candid."

Truitt said he has no ill will toward Wise. "I hope he has adjusted" to life outside of prison, Truitt said. "I'm not a vindictive person."

On a dull, gray Saturday afternoon, Wise tools around Salisbury in the 1982 AMC Concord he's driving just for the afternoon to show a visitor around.

"I have one hell of a time trying to drive," he says. "They got so many gauges in these cars now, you think you're in an airplane."

He sputters along, driving herky-jerky and reminding himself out loud what to do. "I got to change lanes, don't I?"

As he drives, he marvels at how Salisbury (population 20,000, about 5,000 more than 1967) has changed. The city now has two malls, one with a 10-screen cinema. A Perdue chicken plant has uprooted the cab stand where he used to hang out. Crack cocaine has invaded a few neighborhoods.

Cruising along one street with stately, well-kept Victorian houses, Wise notes that the neighborhood is now integrated. "Twenty-three years ago," he says, "if they saw a black man walking on the street around here, they'd say, 'Where you going? Who you work for?' "

Driving and reacquainting himself with the city have been two of Wise's easier adjustments.

He has had a tougher time simply getting used to an environment where those around him aren't inmates. In restaurants, he gravitates to corner tables, sitting with his back against the wall because he learned in prison that he should always be aware of what's behind him.

He has also forced himself not to curse and use slang, or "jailhouse talk," as he calls it. Now, he sprinkles his conversation with "yes, sir" and "excuse my expression."

"I've learned that you have to talk differently in society," he said. "I had to learn to use discretion."

He is also learning how use money. Because of his hearing loss, an agency in town that aids disabled residents helped find him a summer job at an Ocean City crab house, then led him to a job making wooden stakes.

Working 35 hours a week, he brings home $137 after taxes. With his first paycheck he bought after-shave, cologne, deodorant soap -- "stuff you can't get on the inside."

He's living with his mother, so he doesn't pay rent. But he's itching for his own place. He also would like to save money to buy a car. And, maybe further down the road, he'd like to travel to California.

But his greatest goal is the financial stability to marry and have children. He says that desire intensifies whenever he visits his sister in Norfolk and plays with his 4-year-old niece and 7-year-old nephew. He teaches them basketball, and "they call me Uncle Jimmy."

When he speaks of his dream of raising a family, his bitterness pours out.

Even if he does marry and have children, he said, "I probably wouldn't live long enough to see my grandkids."

His venom is aimed not just at the criminal justice system, but at friends who he says never came to his aid when he was in trouble.

When he occasionally meets old friends, "they act like they're glad I'm out, but that's a lot of baloney. How come they didn't do anything for 23 years?"

Of ex-prosecutor Truitt, Wise said, "I don't have any animosity towards him, but I don't care for him, either."

But he becomes angry when reminded that, because he entered an Alford plea, the government cannot compensate him for his time in prison. That's partly why he says he should have "gone for the gusto" and risked a second trial.

"I know they were offering a way out the door, but the hurt will always be there when I wonder what would have happened at a trial. Yes, I'm bitter, no doubt about that," Wise said.

Suddenly, his voice softens, and he looks hard downward. "Being free is one thing," he said, "but being vindicated is another. You know what I mean?"