Archie Alston, the owner of a Northeast Washington seafood delicatessen, spent five months in jail for a crime that prosecutors now acknowledge they can't prove he committed.

Alston was convicted by a jury in 1980 of shooting a man during an argument and of carrying a pistol without a license. Alston argued in court that he hit the man with a brick in self-defense and never had a gun. No gun was ever found, and prosecutors now say they are not sure the victim was ever shot.

Vindication for Alston, 50, came last week in D.C. Superior Court when prosecutors declined, for lack of solid evidence, to begin a new trial that Alston had been granted. All charges against Alston, who had been free since 1981 awaiting the new trial, were dropped and today he is a free man.

"It seems like it's all right for the system to make a mistake, for the prosecutors to make a mistake, for the police to make a mistake," said Alston, back serving fried fish fillets to customers at his deli on Minnesota Avenue NE. "But I have to pay for their mistake."

Alston said in an interview this week that he has spent $30,000 fighting his case, has been bombarded by creditors, has delayed the redecoration of his carry-out and was forced to let his daughter drop out of college when he could no longer afford her tuition.

Bruce McHale, Alston's new attorney, said his client is considering a lawsuit, but declined further comment.

Alston was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon--a gun--and of the unlicensed pistol charge in November 1980 after preliminary medical reports indicated that the man Alston had scuffled with, 24-year-old Tyrone Bolden, had been shot.

Alston's attorney at the time, H. Clifford Allder, and the prosecutor in the case, J. Brooks Harrington, agreed in spite of Alston's objections that the medical record was correct. Alston contended during his trial that he hit Bolden with a brick when he thought Bolden was about to pull a weapon on him. Both Alston and Bolden agreed at trial that they had fought over money, according to the court record in the case.

After his conviction, Alston was sent to D.C. Jail to await sentencing. He then obtained a new attorney, McHale, who went over the medical records and obtained testimony from a D.C medical examiner who said that it was unlikely that Bolden's wounds were the result of a gunshot, according to a court transcript of a hearing in the case.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison III granted Alston's motion in April 1981 for a new trial, finding that Alston's attorney, Allder, had shown "gross incompetence."

Morrison criticized Allder for failing to consult with the medical personnel who treated Bolden, for "apparent failure" to read the medical records, for "apparent failure" to get expert medical testimony about the wound and for accepting the records at trial.

All of this, Morrison ruled, "likely blotted out" Alston's claim of self-defense, which Morrison said was "a substantial one."

Prosecutors and Allder declined to comment on the case yesterday.

At the trial, Allder and Harrington had agreed that hospital reports on Bolden's injury could be entered as "undisputed evidence," according to the trial transcript. The reports, written by physicians at Capitol Hill Hospital who examined Bolden, said he had suffered a wound from a bullet that entered the left side of his face under his eye, traveled across the top of his upper gums and exited above his lip on the right side.

But at a 1981 hearing to consider Alston's motion for a new trial, former assistant D.C. medical examiner Linwood E. Rayford told Judge Morrison it was "highly unlikely" that Bolden's wound had been caused by a bullet: There weren't any bone fractures, as there would have been had Bolden been shot, he said. Furthermore, Rayford said, the holes in Bolden's face were not large enough to have been caused by a lead slug.

Prosecutors later received a report from the hospital that hadn't been included in the documents they subpoenaed for the first trial: a radiologist's report saying X-rays taken when Bolden was admitted to the hospital revealed no evidence of a fracture in his face.

"It's just like starting over again," Alston said this week of his reprieve. "I knew I didn't do it, so I fought it. I just wasn't going to take it like that." CAPTION: Picture, Archie Alston stands outside his seafood delicatessen on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast Washington. He says he spent $30,000 fighting his case. By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post