A federal judge dismissed murder charges Wednesday against a man suspected in the 1996 slayings of two female hikers at Shenandoah National Park but ruled that Darrell D. Rice can be charged again if new evidence surfaces.

Rice, 36, of Columbia was awaiting a March trial in connection with the killings of Laura S. "Lollie" Winans and Julianne M. Williams when federal prosecutors announced Feb. 6 that recent DNA tests cast doubt on their case. They moved to drop charges against Rice and reopened the investigation.

At a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Judge Norman K. Moon said he sympathized with Rice and said it was unlikely he would be prosecuted again in the hikers' deaths. But Moon said he found no legal grounds to bar the government from continuing to consider Rice a suspect.

"In all probability, [the charges] will never come back," Moon said. "There would have to be some sort of substantial evidence, something that would overcome the DNA evidence."

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. said in court that while the forensic analysis "casts doubt on ethically proceeding at this time," it does not exonerate Rice. In court papers filed Wednesday, Bondurant wrote that some people involved in the investigation remain "firmly convinced of [Rice's] guilt."

"It would be an unfair and great tragedy to the victims' families and society if Darrell Rice is eliminated as a suspect," Bondurant said in court.

Julianne Williams's father, Tom Williams of St. Cloud, Minn., said that it has been a difficult time for the families of the women but that he is confident his daughter's killer will be prosecuted eventually. "It's right and it's fair that Julie and Lollie's murders will someday be brought to justice," Williams said. "And we're confident one day justice will be done."

Defense attorneys argued that it is unfair to Rice, who is in prison on an unrelated charge, to continue to live under a cloud of suspicion -- and the fear he will again face a death sentence. Defense attorneys said they have advised Rice to remain voluntarily in solitary confinement because they are concerned other prisoners will fabricate confessions to gain favor with prosecutors.

"I personally have never been more convinced that my client was innocent than I am about Darrell Rice," said Gerald Zerkin, one of his attorneys.

Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, and Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, a lesbian couple, were last seen May 23, 1996, while on a five-day hike in the popular park. Their nude bodies were found June 1 at their secluded campsite, their throats slashed and their hands bound with duct tape.

Rice, an avid hiker and mountain bike fanatic who frequented the park, was indicted in April 2002 in connection with the killings. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft personally announced the break in the high-profile case and said Rice would become the first person to face the death penalty under a law allowing more severe penalties for crimes motivated by anti-gay bias.

At the time of Rice's indictment, physical evidence did not tie him to the crime, but neither did it exclude him.

In recent months, the case against Rice began to crumble. Forensic scientists have determined that at least five hairs found at the crime scene are not Rice's or the women's and possibly were left by the killer.

At least three of those hairs had not been discovered at the time of the indictment.

Scientists also have concluded that DNA found on clothing used to gag the women is not Rice's and "most likely" belongs to someone involved in the slaying.

In a statement released by the defense team, Rice, who is serving an 11-year sentence for a July 1997 attack on a female bicyclist in the same park, said he had "nothing to do with killing Julie Williams or Lollie Winans."

"Reading and hearing all these shocking things people say I said has been surreal," Rice wrote. "Of course, I'm glad that this seems to be ending, but these kind of accusations don't just disappear. I will live forever with what has been said about me."

Darrell D. Rice is in prison for an attack on another woman. He said he had "nothing to do with killing Julie Williams or Lollie Winans."