Whether it was mercy killing or murder - and nobody knows for sure - the doctor who allegedly clubbed a goose to death on a Bethesda golf course has been charged with breaking federal laws.

U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore this week charged Dr. Sherman A. Thomas of Washington with "unlawfully killing a migratory bird, to wit, a Canada goose" on the 17th green at Congreesional Country Club on May 3.

The doctor has contended that the bird was grievously wounded by his approach shot and that he ended its suffering with his putter, a source close to the federal wildlife investigation said.

But other golfers have told investigators that Thomas, in a fit of rage, killed the bird after it interfered with his game.

Whatever the case, the motive doesn't matter as far as the federal laws protecting migratory birds are concerned.

"The law does not differentiate," said one federal source. "It says you can't kill this bird out of season and you can't put it out of its misery with a putter."

Along with the charge that the goose was killed outside the October-through-January hunting season, Thomas is also accused of "unlawfully possessing" the goose.

That charge stems from allegations that Thomas carried the dead goose off in his golf cart.

The law provides a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a $500 fine on each charge.

Thomas will be arraigned before a federal magistrate in Baltimore next Wednesday.

The "goose incident"-as it is referred to around Congressional-set off an uproar at the club and prompted a special meeting of the club's board of governors.

Last week, Thomas won a Montgomery County Circuit Court order to prevent the board from voting on his case. The board, which has options ranging from no action to suspending or expelling him, had informed Thomas they were ready to act on his case.

Thomas' attorney, Charles Shaffer, who represented John Dean during the Watergate scandal, refused to comment on the case, and said he instructed Thomas to remain silent.