A retired 65-year-old Army officer charged in the fatal shooting Friday of his severely burned son at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was released on his own recognizance in D.C. Superior Court yesterday on a charge of second-degree murder.

The officer, Lt. Col. Stanley Stephenson, of 4801 Taney Ave., Alexandria, was described by a neighbor and by police sources as having been under severe mental strain since the son suffered disabling and disfiguring burns about 2 1/2 years ago in a suicide attempt.

His lawyer, James Anderson, said in a brief interview last night that he had not yet decided what defense would be offered in the shooting incident, but called it "the saddest case I've ever seen."

He said the son, Martin Stephenson, 27, "was a vegetable." The son, according to some accounts, had been burned over as much as 80 percent of his body, had lost his fingers and was covered with scar tissue that prevented him from moving.

"The father had been staying with him ever since the suicide attempt, every day for 16 hours a day," Anderson said.

"The boy was a paranoid schizophrenic. It would have been difficult for anyone to withstand the burn injuries, but add to that the fact that the boy was mentally disturbed and it was just unbearable," he said.

Col. Stephenson, an engineer who worked as a civilian at Fort Belvoir after retiring from the Army, said little at yesterday's brief hearing before Judge Fred Weisberg.

When asked by the judge if he understood what was happening to him, he cupped a hand to his ear, paused, then replied, "Yes, I understand what is happening to me."

The retired officer appeared somewhat dazed after being told by Weisberg that he was free to go, subject to the condition that he check in by telephone once a week until a preliminary hearing March 18.

A stocky man about 5 feet 6 inches tall, he appeared to stagger toward the prosecution table, and had to be steadied by his lawyer.

He was met in the rear of the court by his wife, a federal government nutritionist, and by his older son. His wife's eyes appeared to glisten with tears as she held her husband's arm. Stephenson and his wife declined to comment after the hearing. The three drove off together.

According to sources familiar with the case, Martin Stephenson, who may have been an outpatient at Walter Reed in recent weeks, had entered the hospital again Thursday for surgery to alleviate problems connected with scars left by his burns.

But the surgery reportedly was canceled when the son declined to cooperate in the treatment.

According to sources, the father went to pick up the son Friday at the hospital, which overlooks Georgia Avenue NW. Sources said the colonel reported to a nurse at the hospital about 8:45 a.m., saying that he believed something was wrong with his son.

A Walter Reed spokesman said that shortly after 9 a.m. a doctor found the younger Stephenson shot in the head and critically wounded. He died about 6:15 p.m. of a wound inflicted by a bullet from a 9 mm Luger pistol, police said. Stephenson was arrested at the hospital about two hours after his son was shot. The arrest reportedly was made in the presence of a chaplain.

One of Stephenson's neighbors in the Seminary Valley section of Alexandria said the father had been burned on the arms when he went to the aid of his son when the son was burned in the incident 2 1/2 years ago, which occurred in the family back yard.