Bobby Lee Ramdass, 28, who was convicted in the murder of a Fairfax County convenience store clerk, won a stay of execution from the Supreme Court last night, only three hours before he was to be put to death.

The high court, with no dissenting votes, agreed to delay his execution until it decides whether to hear an appeal of his sentence in the September 1992 shooting of Mohammad Z. Kayani, of Springfield. The clerk angered Ramdass by failing to open a safe during a robbery.

Defense attorneys acknowledge Ramdass's guilt but say the jury might not have given him the death penalty had it known that the only possible alternative was life without parole. The question has provoked substantial controversy in legal circles.

Nash Bilisoly, one of Ramdass's lawyers, told the Associated Press last night that Ramdass was "one excited person, believe me," on hearing the news. " 'Way to go, Nash,' is what he said."

Ramdass was to die by injection at 9 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. He would have been the 14th person executed in the state this year, breaking a record for the fourth consecutive year. The Supreme Court's stay was the third it has granted this year in a Virginia execution.

The application for the stay was filed with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who transmitted it to the full court.

No date has been scheduled for the court to decide whether it will hear Ramdass's petition for an appeal of his sentence on constitutional grounds.

Bilisoly, Ramdass's Norfolk-based attorney, said previously: "All we're asking is that the jury be given all the information and make a decision. . . . Bobby Ramdass, believe me, will never see the light of day again."

Ramdass also shot a cabdriver and robbed two pizza shops during the week of the murder and had murdered a 19-year-old Alexandria man during an attempted robbery two months earlier. Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. has called Ramdass "one of the more brutal killers I've had to prosecute."

Kayani, a 34-year-old Pakistani immigrant, was a clerk at a 7-Eleven store in Franconia. Authorities said that as Ramdass and four other men robbed the store, he held a gun to Kayani's head while Kayani tried to unlock a safe that only a store manager could open.

During the sentencing phase of the capital murder trial, the jury sent a note to the judge asking whether Ramdass could ever be eligible for parole if he received a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

The judge, citing Virginia law at the time, refused to answer.

A federal judge ruled last year that Ramdass deserved new sentencing, citing a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a South Carolina case stating that juries need to be told whether defendants given a life sentence would be ineligible for parole.

But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the federal judge's decision on grounds that Ramdass was still technically eligible for parole when the jury asked its question.

A petition for clemency has also been filed with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), describing Ramdass's early life as violent and neglectful.

Staff writer Joan Biskupic contributed to this report.