LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ A former prison inmate who maintained for more than two decades that he didn't kill a North Little Rock policeman pleaded no contest to a charge of manslaughter Tuesday in a plea agreement.

James Dean Walker, 45, served almost 18 years in prison because he twice was convicted of first-degree murder in the April 16, 1963, death of Patrolman Jerrell P. Vaughan, who was shot in the heart near North Little Rock.

Judge Floyd Lofton accepted the plea as a guilty plea in Pulaski County Circuit Court and released Walker because the maximum penalty on manslaughter is 10 years in prison.

Walker, who once escaped for two years, has been free on $150,000 bond and living in Stateline, Nev., since the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a new trial on grounds that there was new evidence in the case. Prosecutors decided a new trial was not likely to result in conviction.

Vaughan's widow, Mada, attended Tuesday's court proceedings and a news conference held by Prosecutor Chris Piazza, and said she was glad the case was over.

Vaughan and Patrolman Gene Barrentine were involved in a shootout with Walker after they stopped a car driven by Russell F. Kumpe in which Walker and a woman named Linda Ford were passengers. Walker was wounded five times in the shootout. Walker and Kumpe had been fleeing from a nightclub where they were involved in a fight.

The new evidence cited by the 8th Circuit included a statement by Kumpe in a diary that could mean that Kumpe had fired a shot at the shootout.

Piazza said the tragedy in the case was that the 8th Circuit ruling came 23 years after the shooting. He said 14 witnesses are dead and the guns and bullets that were evidence in the case have been lost. He said the state could have put on four or five witnesses, but that he didn't think the chances of conviction were very great.

''This has been a very difficult decision,'' Piazza said. ''My heart tells me to fight for Officer Vaughan and take James Dean Walker to court, but logic dictates that we cannot turn back the hands of time 23 years and successfully prosecute this case.''

The plea arrangement, he said, puts a felony conviction on Walker's record for life.

After his first conviction, in 1965, Walker was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of Arkansas overturned that conviction because of prejudicial remarks by the trial judge. The second trial in 1965 resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment.

Walker was out of prison on a furlough in the 1970s when he fled from custody and remained at large for two years. He was identified as an Arkansas escapee after he was arrested on drug charges in California.

Walker said he would earn a living by repairing shoes, a skill he said he learned on the streets.

Piazza said he is exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit aimed at preventing Walker from profiting from his crime, such as through the proceeds of a possible movie about his case. Arkansas has a law to prohibit profiting from a crime, but Piazza said it's not a very good law and it may not work.