One defendant, convicted of murder, was a high school dropout and a low-ranking sailor. The other, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, was not only an officer but a surgeon. Each was recently tried before a Navy tribunal. But in this tale of two sailors, the justice meted out was starkly different.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Mitchell T. Garraway Jr., a black sailor from Suitland, barely escaped the death penalty in the fatal stabbing of his white superior officer, Lt. James Sterner, 35, a former Prince William County teacher.

On June 16, while sailing off Bermuda on a Navy frigate, the USS Miller, Garraway stabbed his superior officer to death. Arguing that the young sailor had killed Sterner in a fury brought on by shipboard prejudice, Garraway's civilian lawyer, Trevor L. Brooks, said: "It's a black-and-white situation. Racism, yes . . . . Top Navy brass is, putting it bluntly, trying to kill Petty Officer Garraway" to "make an example" of him.

But Navy prosecutors saw it another way. Pressing vigorously for the death penalty, they said the slaying was premeditated. On Jan. 30, a Navy jury of three blacks and five whites agreed, convicting Garraway of premeditated murder.

Because Garraway could have been sentenced to death, making the sailor the Navy's first execution in its own ranks in over a century, the case attracted wide media attention, and newspaper articles speculated on whether Garraway might be hanged or put to death in some other manner.

But the same panel that convicted Garraway of premeditated murder decided to spare his life, instead sentencing him to life in prison and dishonorable discharge.

Cmdr. Donal M. Billig, 55, the former chief heart surgeon at Bethesda Naval Hospital, was sentenced to a four-year prison term and dismissal from the service for negligent homicide in the death of one patient and involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of two others. He was acquitted in the deaths of two other patients, but was convicted of 18 counts of dereliction of duty.

Charged originally with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of five patients and 24 counts of dereliction of duty in other operations between June and September of 1983, Billig was only the second Navy doctor ever accused of killing a patient through culpable negligence. A panel of Navy officers, including three doctors and one nurse, heard 60 witnesses during seven weeks of testimony.

During the trial, Billig was contradictorily portrayed as an incompetent surgeon troubled by flawed techniques and fading eyesight who killed unsuspecting retirees, and as an "excellent" doctor who wanted to do good for the Navy. Testifying on his own behalf, Billig dismissed as "absolutely meaningless" statistics that showed that his patients, during his last year at Bethesda, died at a rate that was more than twice the national average. The prosecutors contended Billig had lost surgical privileges in the private sector because of incompetence and entered the Navy by lying about his professional past and impaired vision.

The defense, on the other hand, argued that Billig had been truthful about his limitation, saying he was an honest surgeon who had become a scapegoat. Later, Billig himself blamed the hospital's negligence for the entire controversy surrounding his right to perform surgery.

With Billig facing up to 11 years in prison, dismissal from the Navy and a fine, his attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Baker, pressed for leniency, saying that a wrong decision could "brand Dr. Billig a killer for life."

The Navy jury was indeed lenient in its sentencing of Dr. Billig, dismissing him from the service and sentencing him to four years in prison with eligibility for parole review after 16 months.

Examining these two cases, a myriad of differences can be readily discerned, ranging from race to each man's status in society.

Billig is a professional, a graduate of medical school, who, taking the stand, argued articulately for himself. Garraway, on the other hand, 34 years younger than Billig, dropped out of Suitland High School and joined the Navy when he was 18. Although he took the stand in his own defense, through much of the trial he sat meekly with his head bowed.

Although race was possibly a contributing factor, it would be wrong of me to look at race as a dominant issue of concern in either case, as many other factors are at play here. But whether the disparity in the sentencing of these two men was affected by race, class, age, rank or the nature of their crimes, one thing is certain. The Navy justice that was meted out in the tale of two sailors doesn't approach equality.