A black sailor from Suitland whose lawyer argued that he believed himself the victim of shipboard prejudice was convicted yesterday of premeditated murder in the fatal stabbing of his white superior officer.
The conviction, in Newport, R.I., could bring the death penalty.
A hearing could begin today on the penalty that could be imposed on Petty Officer third class Mitchell T. Garraway Jr., 21.
He could be sentenced to life imprisonment or death, although the prosecution has not said whether it would seek the death penalty.
Sentence could be passed on the sailor as early as this afternoon, according to Navy spokeswoman Mary Silvia.
An eight-member court-martial board deliberated about four hours yesterday before delivering its verdict in the death of Lt. James K. Sterner 35, a white former Prince William County teacher who was stabbed fatally last June 16 on board the USS Miller while the frigate was at sea.
Silvia, spokeswoman for the Naval Education and Training Center in Newport, explained that conviction requires the votes of six of the eight members of the board. For the death penalty to be imposed, all eight members of the board would have to vote for it.
The court-martial board, made up of four enlisted men and four officers, three black and five white, was not polled last night after bringing in the verdict shortly after 8 p.m.
The case has aroused special attention because it is possible the Navy could seek the first execution in its ranks since 1849. The last time a Navy man was sentenced to death was in December 1960, according to one Navy spokesman, but the sentence was commuted by President Kennedy to life imprisonment at hard labor.
There have been no military executions since the Army hanged a soldier in 1961.
Speculation about the death penalty was raised after the Navy rejected Garraway's offer to plead guilty to charges of murder and carrying a concealed weapon. The charge of murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The stabbing occurred on a training cruise after Garraway chanced upon Sterner in a passageway of the Miller, and plunged a Marine combat knife with an eight-inch blade into the officer's back.
Sterner, a main propulsion assistant on the Newport-based ship, died 40 minutes later.
Garraway's civilian lawyer, Trevor L. Brooks of New York, contended that his client was a victim of racist attitudes aboard the ship and then became a victim of the Navy's determination to make an example of him.
In closing arguments, according to the Associated Press, Lt. Daniel O'Toole, who prosecuted, said the evidence presented during five days of testimony showed that Garraway schemed to kill Sterner in retaliation for delaying his promotion.
Brooks, according to the AP, said that Garraway's attack on Sterner resulted from the blocked promotion and by his belief that there were racial problems on the Miller.
Brooks said he was not calling Sterner a racist, but contended that Garraway "perceived there were racial threats or discrimination."