TWO PHILADELPHIA men who were granted a new trial in October after spending 15 years in prison for a murder they claim they did not commit received an early Christmas present yesterday: A judge freed them from house arrest.

The ruling by Common Pleas Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi allows Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder the opportunity to seek employment while awaiting retrial for the 1995 slaying of North Philly businessman Thomas Keal, 52.

DeFino-Nastasi ordered the retrial after finding that the evidence used to convict both men at their 1998 trial was "extremely weak" while new evidence had surfaced implicating others in the robbery-turned-murder.

Last month the judge allowed Gilyard and Felder, both 34, to be released on house arrest.

"It's the right outcome. We understand that these are serious charges and the district attorney has to take their time, but these two men need to be able to get on with their lives and support their families," Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said after yesterday's ruling.

Assistant District Attorney Laurie Williamson said her office was still investigating the case and would update the judge at a Feb. 21 status hearing.