A police trial board that recommended the firing of a Prince George's policeman for shooting an unarmed shoplifting suspect failed to address the crucial question in the case, a circuit court judge ruled yesterday.

That question is "what was in [the officer's] mind at the time he fired his revolver," Judge Perry F. Bowen ruled.

Prince George's County Police Chief John W. Rhoads fired Officer Peter F. Morgan last June after the trial board found Morgan guilty of excessive use of deadly force and unsatisfactory performance of duty."

Judge Bowen asked the trial board to reexamine the record of the proceeding, decide what Morgan was thinking and report back to Bowen. Bowen will then issue a ruling, he said.

Bowen noted Morgan's apparent belief, according to his testimony before the trial board, that if the suspect, William Ray, 32, escaped he would hurt somebody before being recaptured.

"This was a violent escape," Bowen said, contradicting the board's finding that it was not. "The decedent did not sneak out of the station, he physically threw off the officer's hold on him. How can you say that is not violent?"

Morgan, 23, shot and fatally wounded Ray on Christmas Eve, 1977. Ray had been arrested that afternoon for allegedly trying to steal two hams from a supermarket.

While being placed in a holding cell at the Seat Pleasant station by Morgan, Ray knocked Morgan down and fled. Morgan chased him across a street and into an alley, yelling, "Halt, police," and "Stop or I'll shoot," three times, according to testimony.

When Ray failed to stop, Morgan fired his service revolver once, striking him in the back of the head. Ray died two days later at Prince George's General Hospital.

The shooting of Ray, a black, by Morgan, who is white, combined with a second shooting four weeks later of an unarmed black suspect, heightened racial tensions in the county.

Morgan was cleared of legal wrongdoing by a county grand jury but was fired on June 21 by Rhoads after the trial board had issued its recommendation. Morgan appealed the firing and the case was given to Bowen, a Calvert County judge.

"I don't want to know what was in the mind of a captain, a major, the governor or a judge," Bowen said. "I want to know what was in the mind of this private pursuing this escapee."

Morgan testified at the trial board hearing that while he was processing Ray he noticed needle marks on his arms and found a syringe in his pocket. He said that just before escaping, Ray told him he was an addict and had stolen the hams to get money for a narcotic.

The trial board concluded that Ray's drug addiction did not necessarily make him a danger to the community. Bowen indicated that he felt it did.

"What if he had escaped and had come around a corner and found someone with a pocketbook?" Bowen asked. "If he was willing to lay hands on a police officer, which we know he was, who's to say he won't harm the person with the pocketbook, or for that matter, won't kill them to get the money he needs?"

During his 15 minute summary Bowen appeared to be leaning so strongly towards ordering Morgan reinstated that county police officers seated in the courtroom began giving each other the thumbs up victory signal.

"I still think we're in excellent shape," said Laney Hester, police union president. The union has paid all of Morgan's legal fees. "The judge wants the board to tell him what was in Pete's mind. Pete testified that he thought the guy was dangerous."

Morgan, on the advice of his attorney, Samuel H. Serio, did not comment. "We don't want to say anything now that would affect the judge's thinking one way or the other," Serio said.

Rhoads said yesterday afternoon he would ask the trial board to reconvene and send an answer to Bowen, "just as soon as they can."

The board will not hear any testimony or arguments by the lawyers under Bowen's ruling. It will simply review the transcript, then reach a conclusion.