WASHINGTON - A federal judge in Texas has thrown out the 1983 conviction there of Edwin P. Wilson, a former CIA officer, for selling tons of explosives to Libya, ruling that prosecutors knowingly used false testimony to undermine his defense.
The ruling by Judge Lynn N. Hughes of U.S. District Court in Houston was scathing in its condemnation of the government's conduct in a case that was one of the most prominent of its time.
It said that Wilson's efforts to defend himself had been "contradicted by a dishonest agency memorandum issued from a bunker" at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va.
The order, made public in Texas on Tuesday, vacates Wilson's conviction for selling 20 tons of plastic explosives to the Libyan government of Muammar el Kadafi in the 1970s.
Wilson, now 75, has spent more than 20 years in prison, serving three sentences totaling 52 years.
But with that explosives-sale conviction set aside, Wilson could become eligible for parole this year if the government decides not to appeal the judge's ruling, his court-appointed lawyer, David Adler, said yesterday.
Wilson, who retired from the CIA in 1971, defended himself against the charges by saying that he had acted, at least implicitly, under the direction and authority of the agency.
Hughes found that federal prosecutors knew that he had maintained close personal and professional ties to the agency, but nevertheless introduced a false affidavit from a top agency official, Charles A. Briggs, saying the agency had not asked Wilson "to perform or provide any services, directly or indirectly."
In appealing the case more than three years ago, Wilson was able to produce records of at least 40 occasions where he worked for the agency after his retirement.
While none of those records showed that the CIA asked him to sell explosives to Libya, several showed that the agency knew he worked there and asked for his help in finding information. The appeal filed in 2000 was based on new information obtained by his lawyer.
In the 24-page ruling on that appeal, Hughes said prosecutors had "deliberately deceived the court" and the jury might well have acquitted Wilson if the federal government had told the truth about the extent of his contacts with the agency.
A Justice Department spokesman said yesterday that prosecutors were still reviewing the judge's ruling and had not decided whether to appeal.
The agency said it would not comment on the decision, but a spokesman, Mark Mansfield, reiterated the agency's contention that Wilson acted on his own in arranging the sale of the explosives.
"The CIA did not authorize or have anything to do with his decision to sell explosives to Libya," Mansfield said of Wilson. "That decision was his, and that's why he went to jail."
Adler said the judge's ruling had come "as a great relief" to Wilson, who he said now felt vindicated in his claims that he had continued to work for the agency even after retiring.
Adler, the court-appointed lawyer who by coincidence was a former CIA operative, was permitted by the government to review hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents at Justice Department headquarters in preparing the appeal.