A Prince George's County man who was convicted of a 1987 murder that he says he didn't commit is entitled to a hearing before a federal judge to determine whether he should get a new trial, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond voted 2 to 1 to grant the hearing requested by Mitchell S. Ettinger, the attorney for Richard L. McLeod, 36.

McLeod was convicted in 1992 of first-degree murder in the death of Jacqueline R. Roberson, 28, a Bowie schoolteacher who was stabbed in a secluded wooded area off Route 301.

The ruling means McLeod will get a hearing -- probably before a judge in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt -- to decide whether he should get a new trial, Ettinger said. Several appeals at the state level have been unsuccessful.

"I'm excited," Ettinger said. "I know I'll get a neutral jurist, someone who will give us a fair shake."

Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey referred questions to the state attorney general's office, which declined to comment.

McLeod is an admitted rapist who sexually attacked a 15-year-old girl on the day Roberson's body was found. He pleaded guilty to the rape and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

He always has maintained his innocence, however, in the murder.

Ettinger has argued that the case against McLeod is weak because no witnesses and no physical evidence tied McLeod to the slaying.

At the murder trial, a Prince George's prosecutor told jurors that a red bandanna covered with cat hair that was found at the stabbing scene could belong only to McLeod. State witnesses testified that they saw McLeod with a similar bandanna and that McLeod's home had cats. McLeod was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The bandanna and cat hair were not tested for DNA because the testing technology was new at the time. County police said they destroyed the bandanna and the other evidence in 1995.

In his petition to the federal appeals court, Ettinger wrote that Prince George's prosecutors withheld evidence from McLeod's trial attorney that could have led to another suspect.

According to the petition, Karen Clark, a librarian, told a detective that her ex-husband, Richard L. Nelson Jr., had a bandanna identical to the one found at the murder scene. She also said Nelson was violent and carried a knife, the petition said.

McLeod's defense attorney was never made aware of the statements, the petition said.