Three weeks ago, Richard Edwards was fatally shot during a robbery attempt as he carried receipts from the Bethesda seafood restaurant he managed to a bank across the street.

As he fell, Edwards fired his .25 caliber revolver several times in the direction of his assailant. The man charged with Edwards' slaying, Jackie Lee Hughes, now lies in a D.C. Jail hospital ward with three bullets in his chest and hip.

Those bullets may be the only evidence that could either link Hughes to Edwards' murder -- or help prove his innocence. An unusual legal issue has arisen from the government's effort to have the bullets surgically removed from Hughes' body for ballistics tests, and Hughes' steadfast refusal to give the permission necessary to operate.

Hughes' lawyers argued before the D.C. Court of Appeals that it would violate the 29-year-old Northwest Washington man's constitutional rights to force him to undergo surgery without his acquiesence.

The case was presented in an emergency hearing by the city's highest-level court after a lower court judge agree to let the doctors proceed.

The bullets are "the only evidence that can prove Mr. Hughes was the killer," said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Birney. "[They] might also prove that he is not."

Hughes' D.C. attorney, William Mertens, called it a "great indignity to be forced to submit to the knife . . . against his will," and "to permit a cut of an inch or more in length into several layers of the tissues of one's body."

The shooting of Edwards occurred on March 2 in view of lunch-hour crowds walking along Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda.

Edwards, 32, was shot at 1:20 p.m. while he walked in the 7900 block of Wisconsin, 40 feet from Bish Thompson's seafood restaurant where he had been manager for six years. Edwards was carrying a bag of receipts to a nearby bank. He also was carrying the gun that he managed to fire as he fell. n

Hughes checked into Veterans Hospital for treatment of gunshot wounds a short time after the shooting. A few days later, he was arrested by police, and charged with the murder of Edwards.

According to Hughes' Maryland attorney, Matthew Black, court records indicate that Hughes' explanation to doctors for his gunshot wounds was that he had been robbed and shot by several assailants.

Prosecutors wanted to obtain a search warant to authorize a search of Hughes' person -- that is, a surgical probe of his body -- in order to obtain the evidence. But Mertens contends the warrant request is invalid because operating on a human being is substantially different from searching a person's car or house.

Moreover, Mertens said, the government had not shown that the bullets were vital evidence in the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Birney disagreed, calling the bullets "crucial evidence . . . [possibly] the only evidence to establish the responsibility for a vicious, cold-blooded murder."

The battle over the bullets is critical, Birney argued, because after they are extracted, they can be subjected to ballistics tests to determine whether they were fired from Edwards' gun.

The bullets are lodged only an inch under the skin, according to Birney. Removing them would be akin to removing a cyst or mole.

Hughes' lawyer cited court decisions in which doctors had been permitted to take blood samples from a defendant, but said operating to remove bullets was a "quantum leap" from that.

Judges Catherine B. Kelly, Stanley S. Harris and Julia Cooper Mack heard the case, and are expected to rule shortly. Hughes is scheduled to participate in an extradition hearing next month that could result in his removal to Maryland.