updated 9/7/2005 6:58:29 PM ET 2005-09-07T22:58:29

A judge ruled Wednesday that former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers can stay out of prison while he appeals his conviction for leading an $11 billion accounting fraud — a process that could take more than a year.

Ebbers, 63, had been due to report to a Louisiana prison on Oct. 12 to begin serving a 25-year sentence.

In her decision, U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones rejected arguments by prosecutors last month that Ebbers failed to meet the legal standard of raising a "substantial question of law" that could result in a reversal or reduction of his sentence.

Defense attorneys had challenged the judge's instruction to jurors that they could find Ebbers guilty if they believed he suspected a crime was being committed but intentionally looked the other way.

The judge agreed the instruction involved "a generally thorny area of the law" that was worthy of review. But she also insisted she believes that the defense arguments "are without merit" and that the evidence supported the verdict and the sentence.

Even if an appeals court determines the sentence was too harsh, it is unlikely Ebbers' ultimate sentence will not include prison — or even a prison term shorter than the appeals process, prosecutors wrote.

Ebbers was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy in the massive fraud that drove WorldCom into bankruptcy in 2002.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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