Maryland's highest court has ordered a new trial for a Washington man convicted in Charles County on murder and robbery charges for stabbing a Port Tobacco man to death and stealing his car.

The Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the trial court judge incorrectly instructed the jury on the issue of felony murder in the trial of Jeffery E. Allen in August 2002. The opinion upholds an intermediate court decision last year and means that Allen's case will return to the Circuit Court of Charles County.

Three years ago, Allen was sentenced to life in prison without parole for stabbing John B. Butler 19 times at his home off Route 6.

Allen's defense attorney, Patrick J. Devine, said Friday that "the issue of whether he will receive life without parole now becomes a jury question again, and that's significant."

In October 2001, Butler picked Allen up in a section of Northwest Washington known as "The Stroll," which court records describe as a meeting place for gay men. Allen accompanied Butler to his home in rural Port Tobacco, and the two had sex, according to court documents.

The next morning, Allen asked Butler for a ride home. Butler remained in bed, so Allen picked up his car keys and acted as if he planned to steal Butler's car. A scuffle broke out when Allen said he thought Butler had a weapon. Allen grabbed a knife in the kitchen and started stabbing Butler. He then stole Butler's car. During his trial Allen maintained that he had killed Butler in self-defense.

To be guilty of felony murder, a defendant must have committed a felony -- in this case robbery -- in addition to the murder. The issue addressed in the court's opinion on jury instructions is the question of when Allen decided to commit the robbery.

During the trial, Charles County Circuit Court Judge Robert C. Nalley told the jury it could find that Allen had committed felony murder even if he did not decide to steal the car until after Butler's death.

"Even if the intent to steal here was not formed until after the victim had died, taking his property thereafter would still be robbery, if it was part and parcel of the same occurrence which involved the death,'' according to Nalley's instructions.

The appeals court disagreed Friday, ruling that the robbery could not support a finding of felony murder unless Allen decided before or during the stabbing to steal the car.

"A defendant is guilty of first-degree felony murder only if the defendant's intent to commit the predicate enumerated felony arises prior to, or concurrent with, the conduct resulting in death,'' according to the opinion written by Judge Irma S. Raker.

In addition to the felony murder conviction, Allen was sentenced to 30 years for second-degree murder and 20 years for robbery with a deadly weapon. Regardless of the outcome of the new trial, those convictions will stand.

Charles County State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. said Friday, "We intend to present this case again, and we anticipate that the trial court will follow the appellate court's opinion regarding jury instructions."

Jeffery E. Allen was convicted of killing a man in Port Tobacco. Though a felony murder conviction will be reheard, a second-degree murder conviction stands.