A Philadelphia judge has ordered three men to stand trial in the Jan. 14 beating death of Temple University graduate Kevin Kless.

But in a victory for the defense, Municipal Court Judge Patrick F. Dugan ruled Monday that the three will be tried on a third-degree murder count instead of a general charge of murder in which the jury would decide the degree.

Kless, 23, accompanied by his girlfriend and another woman, was assaulted about 2:30 a.m. as they tried to hail a cab at Fourth and Chestnut Streets in Old City. Three men who apparently believed Kless was yelling at them got out of their car, and Kless was beaten to death in the altercation that followed.

Charged in the assault are Steven Ferguson, 20, of Fox Chase; Kenneth Enriquiz-Santiago, 20, of Juniata Park; and Felix Carrillo , 23, of Olney.

Monday's ruling followed an April 4 preliminary hearing before Dugan in which Enriquiz-Santiago's attorney, Lawrence S. Krasner, argued that Kless' death was the unintended result of a fight -- a case of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. Assistant District Attorney Brendan O'Malley maintained that Kless' death was a murder case.

Had the case gone to trial on a general murder charge, a jury could have found the trio guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. A third-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison.

The next court date for the three will be June 4, when they will be formally arraigned on the charges before the case starts moving to trial in Common Pleas Court.